The Panthers have got unfinished business – and they are determined to complete the task at the Metrodome this November.
“We’ve just got to take it to the next level – take it to the dome – and we will. The squad’s looking really good,” said quarterback CJ Janu, one of Spring Lake Park High School’s four captains.
Janu was speaking of the Panthers’ charge to not only repeat as last season’s North Suburban Conference and section champions, but to advance beyond the quarterfinals at the state tournament.
Head coach Jeff Schlieff, while acknowledging that “our section is hands down the toughest in the state,” forecasts great things for his 2012 Panthers.
“We’ve got a tough nucleus of defensive players and the way we play defense, we’ve got a good chance to win sections,” Schlieff said.
All four Panther captains agree, tempering their confidence with modesty and vowing to work tirelessly toward that goal.
Aug. 30, North Branch, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14, St. Louis Park, 7 p.m.
Sept. 22 at Robbinsdale Cooper, 3 p.m.
HOMECOMING: Sept. 28, North St. Paul, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5, Irondale, 7 p.m.
Oct. 12, Chisago Lakes, 7 p.m.
Oct. 17 at St. Francis, 7 p.m.
Daulton Olinger, captain and returning all-state defensive tackle, put it this way. “Our defense looks really strong, we’ve got a lot of people coming back and we’ll be tough against the run,” he said. “On offense we’re looking pretty good, but of course, on both sides, we’ve got to work hard.”
Captain and all-conference honorable mention offensive tackle Derek Malbrue said, “I want us to be a better team, go further in play-offs. It will take a lot of hard work and I’m confident, but I don’t want to be over confident.”
That humble confidence is something Spring Lake Park’s players have learned and practiced since they were middle school footballers.
It was then, as seventh- and eighth-graders on the Westwood Middle School football team, that they met their football idols – the high school varsity players they so admired.
Those upperclassmen mentored the youngsters, demonstrating to them the value of honesty and hard work, of doing the right thing, following rules and being good kids.
As middle schoolers, they learned, by watching their mentors and listening to coaches, the value of the pyramid of success. That pyramid is built on a foundation of personal goals, like giving 100 percent, doing what’s right, being a good kid and treating others as they would like to be treated.
“These things on the base of the pyramid make you rock solid,” Schlieff said. “That’s the Panther football philosophy in a nut shell.”
Assistant coach Scott Wicklund describes Panther football’s foundation this way. “The bottom of the pyramid is stuff that will stick around for life,” he said.
“You could win a state championship and that’s great, but that’s it. Next year it’s gone. This stuff – knowing the rules, keeping the rules, doing your best, doing what’s right – that stuff stays with you for life.”
Athletic goals rest on that foundation, and then team goals, conference goals and play-off goals build the pyramid toward its peak: to win the state championship.
“It’s the same scheme we’ve had for 25 years, just tweaked with new faces, new talents, new strengths and weaknesses,” Schlieff said.
And that pyramid-building scheme continues to this day.
But even winning the state championship, as the Panthers did in 1991, isn’t the end-all, coaches will say.
It’s being a good man.
And even while they memorize the play book, do the drills, get to practice, run and lift and train to be the best player they can be, Panther football players are charged with training to be the best men they can be.
Following last Friday’s two-a-days, the Panthers were told to go home, get some rest, study the playbook – and write down one thing they could do to be a better son. And then do that thing over and over.
Come Monday morning, coaches would ask each player what they wrote down and check to see that they had done it.
“Every day, I want these guys to do championship things, make good decisions, follow the rules, be good men. That’s what we want,” Schlieff said.
“Winning isn’t the only thing, it’s just part of what we do.”
And this year, if the Panthers have their way, “what we do” will include winning the state championship.
Spring Lake Park Panthers (North Suburban Conference)
Head coach Jeff Schlieff
Record and 2011 finish: 9-2 overall (North Suburban Conference champions, section 6AAAA champions, lost to Bemidji in state quarterfinals)
Daulton Olinger (captain, returning all state defensive tackle)
Derek Malbrue (captain, offensive tackle, all conference honorable mention)
Justin Axelson (captain, all conference tight end/defensive end)
CJ Janu (captain, cornerback, quarterback)
Jacob Ojile (all conference honorable mention defensive end)
Ryan Flink (nose guard/center)
Jared Evans (running back)
Conner Keefe (wide receiver)
Ejodamen Ejiya (linebacker/running back)
Sue Austreng is at email@example.com