BRUSHY PRAIRIE — Prairie Heights thinks this year may be the one. You know, that elusive season in which the fruits of a pain-staking rebuild finally begin to blossom.
Of course, no one is under the impression the Panthers will turn into contenders in the Northeast Corner Conference Small School division overnight. However, Heights entered practices with roughly 45 players on its roster, which itself is a step up from even a year ago.
“When we (the current coaching staff) took over three years ago, this program was all but dead,” said assistant coach Brad Moore. “Turning something like that around takes a lot longer than three years, but I feel like we are definitely on the right track.”
Members of the team expressed a belief the team could claw its way toward a .500 record this season when questioned at the Northeast Indiana Football Media Day on July 26 in Fort Wayne. To do so, however, will require the group to overcome significant losses on both sides of the ball.
Record-setting all-purpose threat Ryan Rasler leaves a sizable hole on offense. The then-senior tallied over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2018, finishing with 682 receiving yards, 501 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns.
Moore looked to the ground and shook his head when contemplating the challenge of replacing Rasler’s production. The reality is it might not happen. The Panthers host a slew of players who could each, theoretically, pick up a share of the load, though many of them remain question marks.
Six-foot, 200-pound sophomore Camden Hall made the switch from running back to tight end this offseason, a position where Moore said he will get more touches, and might even be a more natural fit. He figures to get a large share of the load in the passing game, led by senior quarterback Ethan Hoover.
Defensively, the Panthers graduated more than 200 tackles from the middle of their defense. KPC Media Group All-Area linebacker Gary Hayward (138) and Seth Metcalf (80 in eight games) produced as well as any defenders in the area during their senior seasons.
Moore, the team’s defensive coordinator, made sure the lost production wasn’t understated, but also said the biggest help the unit can receive is less time on the field.
Heights’ offense was one of the least effective units in the area last year, consistently struggling to move the chains. Hoover, who himself could set up to five all-time offensive records this season, said the offense will go as far as he can carry it. And keeping his defensive teammates off the field is his top priority.
“Last year, we had a good defense, but they were on the field all the time because our offense went four-and-out or had a bad punt,” Hoover said. “We can’t allow our defense to be out there all the time getting scored on because they’re tired this year. That’s not gonna win us games.”
Heights kicks off the season at home against Garrett.