Panthers eye LEL football crown; but they'll have to limit turnovers
If you’re a Euclid Panther football fan, you might want to mark your calendar for the following dates:
♦ Sept. 23– when Cleveland Heights, regarded as a contender in the Lake Erie League title chase, pays a visit to Sparky DiBiasio Stadium for a 7 p.m. game.
♦ Sept. 30– when the Panthers host the Shaw Cardinals in contest that could have a bearing on the final LEL standings.
♦ Oct. 7– when the Euclid gridders travel to Warren Harding for what could turn out to be a crucial battle in the Panthers’ quest for the league championship.
Head Coach Tom Gibbons makes no bones about it. The LEL crown tops his list of goals for the 2011 season. And despite the turnover-plagued opening game loss to Mentor, it’s certainly within the realm of possibilities.
For one thing, the 49-21 setback against the Cardinals has no bearing on the LEL race since Mentor pulled out of the league this year to join the Northeast Ohio Conference. For another, while the Panthers’ treacherous independent schedule might produce another loss or two, it should serve as a great learning experience—and also toughen up the team for league play.
“We think the league race is wide open,” Coach Gibbons said shortly before the opening game. “I’d like to think that we’ve got as good a chance as anyone. We have a very rugged independent schedule that should prepare us well for the LEL competition.”
In addition to Mentor, which the Plain Dealer ranked No. 3 in its coverage area after the first week of play, Euclid’s non-league foes include Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (No. 7), and Brunswick (No. 17). Despite their loss to Mentor, the Panthers were still ranked in the PD’s Top 25 prior to the Sept. 2 home game against Brunswick, although they had slipped from No. 20 to No. 24. (The Brunswick game was played after the deadline for this issue of the Observer.)
In addition to that formidable threesome, Euclid’s independent schedule also includes a Sept. 9 game at Canton Glen Oak, which some analysts view as one of the top teams in Ohio. For example, the sports staff at WJW-TV Channel 8 recently ranked Glen Oak No. 2 in all of Northeast Ohio, behind St. Edward but ahead of such teams as Solon, St. Ignatius, and Mentor.
So when Coach Gibbons talks about a “rugged” independent schedule, he’s not blowing smoke.
In the Lake Erie League, which no longer has two divisions, Maple Heights was generally favored to finish atop the nine-team league this season. The Mustangs, state champions in Division II the past two seasons, have a significant scheduling advantage: they don’t have to play either Euclid or Warren Harding, the two teams that might have posed the stiffest league opposition. The Plain Dealer picked Maple to win the LEL crown, with Harding finishing second and the Panthers third. But Cleveland Heights and Shaw could also be right in the thick of things.
This is the first year that the Euclid gridders will face Glen Oak, although they have some familiarity with St. Vincent-St. Mary. Last year, they suffered a narrow 16-13 loss to the Akron school.
With seven starters back on offense and three on defense, the Panthers clearly have enough talent and experience to improve on last year’s 4-6 record and, hopefully, make it to the state playoffs. But Coach Gibbons prefers not to look too far ahead. “The LEL championship is our top goal,” he said. “We don’t look past that. But, overall, we’re excited about this season.”
That enthusiasm may have suffered a temporary relapse in the wake of the loss to Mentor. But, almost certainly, the Panthers have what it takes to bounce back. For example, of the 88 players on the varsity, there are 24 seniors and 34 juniors. And a number of experienced “skill” players are back this year, including quarterback Benny Walker, running back De’Andre Rollins, and wide receiver Houston Boone.
If they learned anything from the Mentor game, it’s that they must do a better job of protecting the ball. After playing the Cardinals even in the first quarter, which ended in a 14-14 tie, Euclid committed three turnovers in the second period—including a pair of interceptions—as Mentor scored four unanswered touchdowns to grab a 42-14 halftime lead. “That changed the complexion of the game,” Coach Gibbons told sports reporters afterward.
On a somewhat positive note, Rollins paced the Euclid running attack in the opener, gaining 72 yards on 13 carries—an average of 5.5 yards per carry against the tough Cardinal defense. Melvin King, a 6-0, 195-pound junior, added 42 yards on 10 carries. Walker completed 15 of his 30 pass attempts for 142 yards. Boone was on the receiving end of seven of those passes.
The Panthers’ first-quarter TDs were scored by fullback Joe Greene on a 14-yard run and Rollins on a 15-yarder. Tyler Stafford, the senior backup quarterback, put the final points on the board when he completed a 49-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Johnson in the fourth quarter.
PANTHER SNAPSHOTS – Here are brief profiles on a few of the Panthers’ key returning starters:
Benny Walker: the 6-0, 180-pound senior quarterback enjoyed considerable playing time in 2010, completing 48% of his passes for an average of 15.2 yards per completion. “He brings much-needed experience to our offense,” says Coach Gibbons. “He had a great summer throwing the ball. We’re very excited about his development.”
Juwan Ford: the 5-9, 218-pound junior tailback-linebacker is “a downhill runner,” the coach notes. “He runs straight ahead and he packs a punch when he runs.”
De’Andre Rollins: another runner with size, the 6-0, 225-pound senior tailback/linebacker gained 345 rushing yards last season and averaged 8.3 yards per carry. “He’s a potential Division I college recruit,” Coach Gibbons says. “He’s very strong and he has quick feet for a big body. He moves well for his size. On defense, he was one of our leading tacklers last year with more than 90 tackles.”
Bryan Henderson: the 5-8, 230-pound junior center and defensive lineman is “an exceptional leader,” the coach points out. He’s one of five co-captains this fall. (The others are Walker, Rollins, Boone, and T. J. Owens.)
Houston Boone: a 6-0, 170-pound senior wide receiver-defensive back, Boone was selected—along with Rollins—for the PD’s pre-season list of the 50 top high school players in the Greater Cleveland area. As one of the Panthers’ top receivers last season, he averaged 19 yards per catch. “He’s a talented position player—as talented as any of our skill players,” says Coach Gibbons. “And he’s very versatile.”
T. J. Owens: a 6-2, 248-pound senior offensive and defensive lineman, Owens was a starter last year at right tackle. “He and Henderson are the leaders on the offensive line,” the coach points out.
Matt Blaha: the sort of youngster who stands out in a crowd, the 6-4, 350-pound junior is a two-way lineman. “He was a starter as a sophomore,” Gibbons notes. “He moves his feet well for a big guy. We think he has big-time potential.”
PHOTO D: No. 815 on chip:
(NOTE: This is the primary photo to run with the Euclid football team story, whether in a pullout section – or just in the normal sports section. IF ONLY ONE PANTHER PHOTO CAN BE USED, THIS SHOULD BE IT.)
PANTHER MAINSTAYS – These returning starters are expected to be the backbone of the Euclid football team this fall. Front row, from left: quarterback Benny Walker (14), center Brian Henderson (63), tailback Juwan Ford (3). Back row: wide receiver Houston Boone (4), lineman T. J. Owens (56), lineman Matt Blaha (78), and tailback-linebacker De’Andre Rollins (1). (Photo by John Sheridan)
PHOTO C: No. 803 on chip: (This could be used as the opening photo – or elsewhere in the section if needed)
ALL SUITED UP – It was “photo day” for these Euclid High football players, shown heading toward the stands where the official team picture was about to be taken. The big guy in the foreground (No. 78) is 350-pound Matt Blaha. (Photo by John Sheridan.)
Panther Football Schedule *
Aug. 26 Mentor High Home 7 p.m.
Sept. 2 Brunswick Home 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 Canton Glen Oak Away 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 St. Vincent-St. Mary Away 7 p.m.
Sept. 23 Cleveland Heights Home 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 Shaw High Home 7 p.m.
Oct. 7 Warren G. Harding Away 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 Shaker Heights Away 2 p.m.
Oct. 21 Lorain High ** Home 7 p.m.
Oct. 28 Bedford High Away 7 p.m.
* Most JV games are played at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. on Saturdays. Freshman games are after-school contests on Thursday afternoons.
Retired journalist. From 1963 to 1972, wrote for and edited the Euclid News-Journal, predecessor to the Sun-Journal. From 1972 to 2000, I was a writer and editor for Industry Week magazine. Also have worked for the Plain Dealer as a part-time sportswriter, covering high school sports. And I was a contributor to the previous Euclid Observer. I have lived in Euclid for almost my entire life. I am a graduate of St. Joseph High School and John Carroll University.