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Prep Football preview: Like a fine wine, No. 2 Panthers mature





After the Massaponax High School football team defeated Courtland 29–6 to open the 2011 season, head coach Eric Ludden said “the Baby Panthers did all right.”

Massaponax had 17 sophomores on its season-opening roster, so the team exceeded Ludden’s early expectations.


    The Free Lance–Star unveils its high school football

    preseason top five teams, leading up to Friday’s

    season-opening games.

    No. 5: Mountain View

    No. 4: James Monroe

    No. 3: Courtland

    No. 2: Massaponax

    No. 1: North Stafford

But those Panthers aren’t babies anymore.

They gained valuable experience in what turned out to be a roller coaster of a season.

Massaponax finished 7–4 and earned a bid to the Northwest Region, Division 5 playoffs.

But it closed the season with two straight defeats. Those unsettling setbacks left the youthful group eager to take the field again.

The Panthers open the upcoming season on Friday when they host Courtland. Massaponax has key players returning at several positions.

That’s why the Panthers are the No. 2-ranked team in The Free Lance–Star’s preseason power poll.

“We have really high expectations,” said junior defensive end and right tackle Vinny Mihota, who has orally committed to Virginia Tech. “Coach Ludden always sets high standards. We expect to do well during the season, and go into the playoffs.”

Ludden said it’s not always that simple.

The Panthers haven’t had a losing season since they joined the Commonwealth District in 2003, but Ludden is wary of overconfidence.

He said last year the Panthers’ highs were too high and their lows were too low. He said that’s to be expected with a young team, but added that it’s not a given that those growing pains are over.

“I don’t think there’s an automatic progression to being a great team or being a great player,” Ludden said. “You can’t think you’re going to be good just because you have this many people back. You have to show improvement in relation to the competition. It looks good on paper, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”

Ludden hopes the lessons learned toward the end of last season mean something. The Panthers ended the regular season with a 33–28 loss to an Albemarle team that finished eighth out of nine teams in the district.

They then suffered a 42–26 defeat to George Washington–Danville in the first round of the regional playoffs.

The losses came after a four-game winning streak that left the team feeling good about itself.

“It’s definitely a big motivation, losing those last two games that we felt like should’ve been our victories,” senior running back and cornerback Joey Foster said. “It was motivational for me and everybody else to work hard in the offseason to make sure things like that don’t happen again.”

If the Panthers are to avoid those pitfalls this season, it may come down to the leadership of the junior class.

Senior left guard and linebacker Torrez Grant–Ellis said that at times it was “overwhelming” for the young players to guide the team last year.

Ludden said he often saw confused looks on those players’ faces during moments they were unsure if they should step up.

“They would look around like ‘I don’t know what to say or do. I’m only 15 years old,’” Ludden said. “I think they feel like they can contribute more as leaders this season.”

Mihota said that shouldn’t be too difficult, especially for the three juniors who have started since they were freshmen. Mihota is one of those players. The others are two-way lineman Steven Sobzcak and running back/defensive lineman Javonte Latney.

Foster and Grant–Ellis said they knew those were “special players” when they first saw them in the weight room two years ago. Now it’s time for them to demonstrate their progression on the field.

“It’s early, but they’ve been working hard and doing the right things,” Ludden said of his junior-laden team. “But we have a lot of competition in this area we have to overcome. That’s the challenge.”

Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526