SENIOR LEADER … Quarterback Jacob Cadwell sits in the pocket to make a pass in a game against North Adams, MI last season. Cadwell is the top returning player on offense for the Panthers after throwing for 1,790 yards and 24 touchdowns a year ago. PHOTO BY RICH HARDING / THE VILLAGE REPORTER
By: Daniel Cooley
The 2022 campaign for the Stryker eight-man football team was the most successful in school history.
The sixth-year varsity program had its first winning season and also made the Northern 8 Conference playoffs for the first time.
Now the Panthers are hoping to do it again. But they will have some work to do, because six of eight starters on each side of the ball graduated.
“We are extremely proud of our team, especially our seniors, for leading us to our first winning season and first playoff appearance, since starting varsity football in 2018,” said head coach Kent Holsopple.
“We accomplished several of our team goals, achieved individual and team season records…and made many lasting memories in our fifth varsity season.”
“But we graduated a tremendous amount of production, and we have a lack of experience in the trenches.”
The Panthers lost five starters on both sides of the ball who were four-year lettermen and another starter, 6’6” tight end/defensive end Eljah Juillard, who was a second team Northern Eight Conference performer on defense.
On the positive side, Stryker does have some returning experience, with seven returning lettermen, who will go both ways.
Those players are senior wide receiver/defensive back Gavin LaBo, senior tight end/defensive lineman Devin Montague. junior running back/linebacker Chris Damms, sophomore tight end/linebacker Eli Capps, sophomore running back/linebacker Nathan Gonyers, sophomore offensive/defensive lineman Ruston Nafziger and sophomore offensive/defensive lineman Owen Zachrich.
In addition, there are seven promising newcomers, including senior offensive/defensive lineman Carl Glenn and junior offensive/defensive lineman Shawn Bueher.
The remaining five are freshmen, wide receiver/defensive back Samuel Gonzalez, wide receiver/defensive back Jacob Ramos, offensive line/linebacker Vance Chapple, offensive/defensive lineman Ethan Beltran and offensive/defensive lineman Michael Damms.
STRENGTHS: Offensively, “we have an experienced, hardworking and talented leader in Cadwell,” Holsopple said. “He is complemented by a pair of playmakers (Jacob Myers, 358 receiving yards and Gavin LaBo, 71 receiving yards), who are ready to take the next step for us.”
Cadwell completed a very strong 71% of his passes (180-254) for 1,790 yards and 24 touchdown passes, with just four interceptions. He also rushed for 120 yards and four touchdowns.
The Panthers lost running back Levi Barnum, a first team Northern 8 selection, who rushed for 1,254 yards and 15 touchdowns and was the team’s top receiver, with 609 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Panthers also lost their second leading receiver, Mateo Villanueva (484 yards and five touchdowns) and fourth leading receiver, Juillard (307 yards and three TDs), but return their third leading receiver in Myers.
Gonyer, who rushed for 26 yards, will be the top running back and Chris Damms should also get plenty of carries.
Stryker lost all of its starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. Gone because of graduation are first team Northern 8 offensive lineman Jaydin Rethmel and offensive linemen Jeff Pace and Matthew Froelich.
As a result, Stryker will have to rely on all new starters on the line and will have decent size there.
Returning lettermen Nafziger (255 pounds} will hold down one guard slot, Montague (220) and Eli Capps (165) will battle for the tight end position and Zachrich (280) will battle newcomer Michael Damms (235) for the center spot.
Newcomers Chapple (200) and Beltran (190) will hold down the other guard spots.
“We must protect our quarterback, be physical up front, be consistent in our run game and win the time of possession battle,” Holsopple said. “(Also), We must convert more third downs (Stryker converted just 32% last year).”
On defense, Stryker will need to replace first team Northern 8 linebacker Barnum (75.5 tackles), first team Northern Eight defensive lineman Rethmel, defensive lineman Pace, defensive back Villanueva and linebackers Froelich and Juillard.
The returning defensive starters are defensive backs Cadwell and Myers. Returning letterwinners who will be projected starters on defense will be end Montague, interior linemen Nafziger and Zachrich, linebackers Gonyer and Chris Damms and safety LaBo.
Newcomers vying for starting positions are end Glenn, interior linemen Michael Damms and Beltran, linebacker Chapple, cornerback Gonzalez and safeties Glenn and Ramon.
“Most of our opponents have strong running schemes, so we must rally to the ball and be sound tacklers and limit explosive plays,” Holsopple said.
“We need to create more takeaways and negative plays. Plus, we have tough competitors and playmakers in the defensive backfield.”
WEAKNESSES: “On defense, we graduated an incredible amount of defensive production,” Holsopple said. “We must develop aggressive producers on the defensive line and at linebacker.”
On special teams, Stryker will have to replace kickoff kicker and punter Froelich (34.5 yards per punt). LaBo will handle the punting and kickoff duties.
Myers, who averaged 15 yards per kick return and returned eight punts for 52 yards, will handle the returns again. Gonzalez and Ramon will also return kicks and Chris Damms will be the long snapper.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: Despite the lack of returning starters, Holsopple feels that there are enough returning lettermen to contend for a playoff spot. He sees Holgate and Toledo Christian as the title favorites.
“I expect us, Sandusky St. Mary’s, Danbury and Sebring McKinley to battle for the last two playoff spots,” Holsopple said.
“We are excited for another competitive eight-man football season. We look forward to creating more memories for our school and community, under the lights.”
ABOUT THEIR SCHEDULE: Season Opener: August 25 – North Adams (MI) (A); Northern 8 Opener: September 8 – Sandusky St. Mary (H)
Dan can be reached at email@example.com