NAPPANEE — When NorthWood football coach Nate Andrews looks around and sees some of the returning talent on some of the other 4A teams around the state, he’s humbled by the attention his Panthers have gotten in the preseason.
The Black Crunch enter the 2019 season rated fifth by the Indiana Football Coaches Association and No. 6 in the Associated Press’ Class 4A preseason polls. Last fall, NorthWood went unbeaten through the regular season on the way to a Northern Lakes Conference championship and finished 11-1 — its only blemish coming via 27-26 heartbreaker to fellow unbeaten Angola in their sectional championship contest — and the Panthers certainly have a number of important pieces back from that campaign. But Andrews cautions that this group has yet to prove itself on the field.
“That’s a respect factor. That is a testament to our program, not just the last couple or last few years, but probably the entirety of the program, the last 50,” said Andrews of the polls. “I look at some of these other teams that are receiving less votes than us and how loaded they are this particular year — it’s mind-boggling. Yet, nonetheless, there’s a lot of people out there that figure come playoff time the Panthers will be right there. That’s a testament to those that have gone before us, and it’s pretty cool. Those people that have gone before us, they’re the ones that are being recognized. This team hasn’t done anything yet.”
Foremost among Wood’s returning talent are senior captains Garrett Anglemeyer, a third-year starter who’ll play both ways at center and defensive tackle; Jason Borkholder at both tight end and defensive end; Veshon Malone, who returns to the running back position and at middle linebacker after sustaining a broken leg in Week 9 last season; and Jaden Miller, who will do a little bit of everything for the Panthers.
The program lost a tremendous player in 2018 in Bronson Yoder, an Indiana Mr. Football finalist and our 2018-19 IFN Athlete of the Year, and he’s leaving some big and very versatile shoes to fill. Miller could help fill some of the voids left by Yoder’s graduation as he slots in at running back, wide receiver, defensive back, linebacker and even at quarterback on occasion. He piled up 625 yards and six rushing touchdowns last season and a whopping 10.9-yards-per-carry average as well as 265 receiving yards and four TD catches.
Yoder’s primary replacement under center will be junior Nate Newcomer, who split time with Yoder at the QB position last year, when he completed 24 of 43 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another 558 yards and 10 scores.
Braedon Marshall and Zach Miller return to the offensive line, Jake Lone is back on the defensive line, and Ben Mestach returns at running back and outside linebacker, while Kyler Sellers returns to the defensive backfield after a particularly strong offseason, and Eddie Hilderbrant is back at linebacker.
There are a number of good players returning to the field for NorthWood this fall, but the Panthers are a little thin in spots. Many of the team’s veterans will need to play both ways in the early part of the season.
“A small senior class. We have eight senior kids in our senior class. Now most of those kids have played significant minutes and have had significant time and some great experience. And we have a good junior class,” said Andrews.
“It’s one of those things where, yeah, we have some guys that have been around it and in it, but they’re two-way players because of the depth situation and because of where we’re at. We will continue to work to build a little more depth as we move forward and continue to create a culture that is a great experience for kids to grow up in.”
The Panthers have really been able to pile on the points over the past few seasons, and they’ve used a number of approaches to put up those prolific offensive numbers. Last fall, Wood reached the end zone 74 times on the way to a gaudy 43 points-per-game average. There are always tweaks to make, but this year’s personnel may be ahead of the curve on the offensive side of the ball.
“I feel pretty good about where our offense is at. I think that last year it took us a little while to figure out who we were and get going and figure out the intricacies of our offense. We adapted quite a bit to our personnel,” recalled Andrews. “I think even though we lost a couple of really good players, I think our personnel steps into those roles, and we didn’t have to change and adapt as much offensively as we have in years past.”
The Black Crunch defense has the speed and the talent to be successful too, but that side of the ball is a bit more of a question mark for Andrews and his staff.
“If we can get that side of the ball to play with a swagger and confidence, then we have a chance to be pretty good,” the NorthWood boss said.
Wood opens at home opposite Jimtown Friday night at 7 p.m., then plays host to 3A No. 2-ranked Bishop Chatard in Week 2 before opening its NLC slate at Concord in Week 3. As always, the Panthers want to open 1-0 and to defend their home turf, but also as in years past, its more about the preparation than the end result.
“More than that we talk about process more than anything else and a process of doing the right things — not just on the field but off the field — and hoping that those things will carry us forward, make us better young men. If the scoreboard doesn’t show it at the end of a Friday night, that’s not the end goal as long as we’ve done the process right and given our best shot. We can keep our chins up with our eyes open and a smile on our faces and know that we have been successful,” Andrews explained. “We hope that one day maybe the scoreboard is in our favor or we see the fruits of our labor, but that’s the biggest deal is to improve each and every day and be the best versions of ourself.”