North Platte will have the experienced roster, but the group must now learn to win — all while replacing key position players.
Coming off a 5-7 season and a trip to the Class 1 District 7 title game, the Panthers went just 2-8 in 2016 with just one win in KCI Conference play. That league victory served as a highlight, reclaiming the Tobacco Stick trophy in a tight battle with rival West Platte.
Nine freshmen and sophomores started last season, leaving the group mostly intact for this season.
“This turned out to be a great group of guys. We all play for each other and not for ourselves and now we’re really hopeful for this season and have high expectations for ourselves,” said senior quarterback Austin Snook, who threw for 673 yards and three touchdowns last year despite giving up his spot late in the year in an effort to jumpstart the offense.
North Platte coach Josh Rodriguez, entering his third season, ditched the traditional offense and went run heavy late in the season with Ben French, a graduated senior who accounted for 888 of the team’s 1,488 rushing yards while splitting time between tailback and quarterback. French and fullback Parker Rotterman were a big part of the run game last season, leaving questions in the backfield.
Remington Wilson, a senior, ran for 264 yards a year ago — second for North Platte and will take on a bigger role. Van French, another senior, will move into the backfield after providing needed help on the offensive line a year ago.
Snook’s main targets in the passing game will be senior Will Morse, who missed most of last season with a broken leg, and senior Corbin Green, who led North Platte with 14 catches for 214 yards a year ago.
Bart Owens, a senior and third-year starter, will again lead the lines with sophomores Nelson McCrackin and Cameron Leupold and junior Matt Carter expected to contribute to a unit that only lost Van French to his move into the backfield. Ty French, a sophomore, will be at tight end.
The defense will also have to account for the losses of French, an all-state defensive back who did his best work in run support, and Rotterman — the second-leading tackler. Wilson led the Panthers with 116 tackles a year ago at linebacker and will have Carter alongside him after he played sparingly on defense as a sophomore.
The defensive line will also feature Van French (56 tackles, one sack) and Owens (67 tackles). In addition, Green and Morse will help solidify a defensive backfield that lost Tony Martin (team-high three interceptions), while Ty French inherits Ben French’s strong safety role.
“I’ve been very impressed with our enthusiasm and our commitment to making things right,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve had really crisp practices the first week and so far so good as to how focused we are.”
With a large returning group, Rodriguez hopes that the KCI Conference schedule eases up some this year with other teams replacing larger groups of seniors.
“It seemed like everyone was senior loaded last year, but some of those schools are not going to rebuild. They’re just going to reload with another senior class,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got great coaches in our conference and programs that are well established so I don’t think that is of big of deal as it would be for some of the smaller schools. But a couple of them will have a down year according to their standards that we might be able to catch up to a couple of them.”