[tps_title]Cheltenham Panthers [/tps_title]
Barnes, Panthers setting big goals for new season
WYNCOTE >> Cheltenham senior Jamir Barnes isn’t afraid to say he has big goals for this season.
The standout running back has lofty personal hopes of rushing for 2,000 yards and scoring at least 15 touchdowns but his ultimate goal is all about his teammates. Last year, the Panthers arrived a little faster than expected by finishing second in the SOL American and reaching the second round of the District 1-5A Tournament.
For many teams, it would be a tremendous success. For the Panthers, it was just motivation.
“If we want to be better than last year, then we definitely have to make it past the second round of the playoffs,” Barnes said. “This was always our plan, to be a great team and not just a good team. We know what we have to do, we know the plan, it’s the same thing as last year but it’s on us to be a little bit better, a little bit stronger, a little bit faster and now that we have young guys coming up, we hope they can take our spots and keep on going.”
Head coach Ryan Nase enters his third season leading the Panthers with a senior-heavy core of players looking to go out with a bang. Cheltenham went 2-8 in Nase’s debut season but the youthful team showed a lot of talent ready to break out.
Last year, with good senior leadership, Cheltenham went 8-4 before losing to eventual District 1 champion Upper Dublin in the second round of the postseason. The Cardinals were responsible for two of the Panthers’ four losses and along with Abington and Hatboro-Horsham, are benchmark games for the Panthers this fall.
“There’s a more businesslike approach from our guys,” Nase said. “Last year, we expected to be pretty good but not a lot of other people did so we played with that chip on our shoulder. This year, that chip is gone and it’s more a sense of ‘this is who we are’ and now it’s time to take care of business. Winning those games with our local rivals and taking that next step is a big goal of ours for next year.”
Cheltenham’s biggest question marks come up front. The Panthers graduated four starters on the offensive line, plus an excellent blocker in all-league TE/DE Will Felix. On the defensive side, Cheltenham loses standout OL/DL Marcus Winfield and has just one returner.
If the Panthers’ offensive line can come together quickly, the offense will be very dangerous. Barnes, an All-SOL performer, is just the keystone of a versatile, athletic and potent group under senior quarterback Adonis Hunter flanked by receivers Lateef “TJ” Harris and Nate Edwards plus tailback Siddiq Williams.
Nase, who played offensive line in his playing days, isn’t asking the players trying to fill in around senior lineman Brendan Canally to be all-pros right away.
“One of the big things we told our o-linemen playing for the first time is that with the guys we have in the backfield and a really smart quarterback, we don’t need them to drive guys 12 yards off the ball and get a pancake block,” Nase said. “We just need them to be able to give us a yard or two on the line of scrimmage and if they’re making the d-linemen work that hard, it’s a lot harder to tackle our running backs.”
Like on offense, Cheltenham’s defense looks primed for big things at the second level. The linebacker group in particular is in great shape with junior all-league pick Sam Sykes, junior Zach Gaffin and senior Jon-Marc Foreman at the core of it all.
Nase thinks junior defensive end Darenmeen Xayamounghkoun is a breakout candidate up front and the secondary is stacked with athletes like Barnes, Edwards and Harris, a ball-hawk safety who had seven picks last season. Barnes is a superb offensive player but there was a definite tone of excitement in his voice when the subject of defense came up.
“Our linebackers are strong, Zach Gaffin had 100 tackles last year and I know he’s coming into this year looking for 120, TJ Harris had seven interceptions, it was a big part of what we did,” Barnes said. “We have the same people coming back. I think people are going to be more amped to play us, but they should know our defense plans to be strong.”
Cheltenham will also have to replace a weapon in kicker/punter Justin Grady, which has led to more work on special teams.
The Panthers know there won’t be any teams on the schedule overlooking them this year, but they’ve spent the entire offseason preparing for it. They may have been a year ahead of schedule, but all that did was fuel them to want even more.
“We went from 2-8 to a playoff team,” Barnes said. “These are my brothers.”
OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH
Adonis Hunter, Quarterback >> Cheltenham’s bread-and-butter is the run game but the senior quarterback is more than capable of putting the ball in the air with success. Hunter threw for nearly 1,500 yards last season and 12 scores and he’s shown a knack for being able to read a defense on the fly.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH
Lateef “TJ” Harris, Safety >> A true ballhawk in every sense, the first team All-SOL American pick had seven interceptions last year and covered almost every inch of the field on his way to 94 tackles. With a strong secondary and linebacker group in front of him, Harris is the perfect guy to cover the back end of the Panthers’ defense.
By Kev Hunter; firstname.lastname@example.org