Heber Springs didn’t get the gaudy win total last year the Panthers had grown accustomed to several times in the last few seasons, but a quarterfinal run in the Class 4A state playoffs made up for it.
Steve Janski’s Panthers, who won 11 games and a conference title — the first in 32 years — in 2012, finished the regular season 5-4 and the 2-4A Conference schedule 3-4, tied for fourth. They lost a decisive season opener to Pottsville, 35-14, and with an open date the second week, didn’t win until Week 3, a 38-6 decision over Gentry. They opened defense of their conference championship with a 21-6 win at Lonoke. But they saw their 12-game league winning streak ended by Stuttgart, 34-7, in Week 4; then beat Marianna, 54-0; lost to Newport, 40-24; and won back-to-back games at Southside Batesville, 37-8, and Clinton, 42-20, before falling to Dollarway, 54-20, to end the regular season.
And then, as the conference’s fourth seed for the playoffs, they caught fire for two weeks on the road. The Panthers beat Star City, runner-up in 8-4A, in the opening round, 33-7; and Pea Ridge, runner-up in 1-4A, in the second, 42-21. The Panthers’ season ended at Highland, winner of 3-4A, in the quarterfinals, 40-14. Heber Springs closed 7-5.
The Panthers won every game on the road until the last one.
“We played in a tough conference,” Janski said. “The experience against the tough competition prepared us for the playoffs. We were able to play well.”
Senior Michael Kramer (6-0, 205) accounted for more than 2,000 yards last year at quarterback. He is one of six starters returning on offense for 2013. Three are back on defense.
The starting lineup on offense is expected to include Kramer at quarterback; junior Chandler Marquardt (5-11, 170) at running back; senior Cooper Lawrence (5-8, 165), juniors Dillion Moore (5-10, 165) and William Brown (6-2, 190), and sophomore Hunter Chandler (6-2, 175) at wide receiver; senior Jason Hammons (6-0, 245) and junior Kody Youngblood (5-11, 225) at tackle; senior Nate Hills (6-4, 300) and sophomore Dylan Platt (6-0, 210) at guard and junior Zach McCormick (6-2, 230) at center.
Defensively, senior Dylan Bly (5-11, 150) and juniors Moore, Marquardt and Edgar Torres (5-8, 165) are set for the secondary. Juniors Chandler Jones (5-9, 175), Aldonn Skelton (5-10, 165), Marquardt and senior Ian Lowe (5-10, 165) are expected to contribute at linebacker. Youngblood, Hills and senior Cody Bernhardt (6-4, 210) should man the line.
Janski said team strength and offensive linemen will be strengths for his team in 2013. Weaknesses will include a lack of experience and speed.
The coach predicted that Dollarway, Newport, Stuttgart and Lonoke will return to the playoffs in 2013, with Clinton also expected to contend for the postseason. The Panthers should also contend.
The key game for his team, Janski said, will be Lonoke on Sept. 27. That’s when the Panthers will play host in the conference opener, and getting off to a good start will be important.