The turnaround for Panther Creek in 2013 was unmatched by any other team in the state. The Catamounts went from 1-10 to 9-3 and were in position to win the Southwest Wake Athletic 4A Conference until a last-second field goal by Middle Creek.
The seniors, who banded together after several close losses in 2012, were a big reason for the turnaround. But those seniors are gone.
Panther Creek will rely on the most sophomores coach Sean Crocker has seen on varsity.
“We feel good about the group that we have,” said Crocker, who is entering his third year at the school. “We have a lot of young guys who are going to play this year. They’re good football players, they just haven’t played on Friday night a lot. Those guys will have to step up.”
Crocker is a former safety who played at North Carolina and in the NFL. But while coaching high school, he has turned into an offensive guy. He calls the plays for the Catamounts’ four-receiver spread offense, which will have many new faces.
With SWAC offensive player of the year Dorrel McClain graduated, the team’s leading returning rusher is Akeem Smith (58 yards), who will fight sophomore Addison Pinkney for carries. However, Southern Durham transfer Toney Bass (527 yards, nine TDs), a junior, moved into the area and should start.
“He’s a hard worker.” Crocker said. “He’s quick, strong. He’s going to be a lot like Dorrel in that he’s explosive.”
Also gone on offense are three starting receivers, leaving third-year starter Tre Sullivan (326 yards, three TDs) as the lone returning starter. Tight end Trevor Fick tore his ACL before the year began. Caleb Cross, Deomonte Taylor and Justin Smalls move up from JV.
Even the offensive line has had a lot turnover, although tackle Donovan Hunt has starting experience. Big Zack Safron (6-foot-3, 260) is a newcomer as a senior.
Senior quarterback Brenden Magner (14 TDs, 10 interceptions), entering his third year as starter, will give the team a proven presence under center. Magner completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 1,945 yards.
“Last year we saw steady growth throughout the season,” Crocker said. “He can make all the throws. He does a good job of seeing things. What we need him to do, really, is be a good decision-maker. What I am constantly telling my quarterbacks is we don’t need the great throw. We don’t need the John-Elway-throw-it-between-three-guys. That’s not our game. We want to hit open receivers.”
On defense, where former Northern Durham coach Anthony Sullivan is the coordinator, the secondary is expected to be strong as it returns intact.
Corners Juwan Byrd and Quran Moon, both three-year starters, and safeties Isaiah Lasater and Dallas Hancock were big reasons the Catamounts held opponents to 14.1 points per game.
The linebackers are all new, and Ryan Callahan, Steve Pastorek, Devin McNutt and Matt Mitchum are fighting for the starting spots.
“We don’t know exactly who’s going to step up,” Crocker said.
The defensive line will get a boost from Middle Creek transfer Josh Guest. He’ll join returning starter Julian Wheaton, who can play tackle or end. Dillon May also will factor in.
Kicker Philip Stone returns, but the team had no punters on its roster entering the first day of practice.
Crocker’s team is young and doesn’t have much depth. But with the right breaks and a few good habits picked up from last year’s squad, there’s enough talent to return to the playoffs.
“We’ve got to stay vigilant,” Crocker said. “We’ve got to stay focused. Our guys have got to take the success of the team last year but know it doesn’t carry over into this year.”