The Ellsworth student section cheers as Max Grand breaks loose on a run against the Northwestern Tigers on Friday night. Despite being a three-hour drive from Ellsworth, the student section was nearly at full capacity on the road on Friday night. Photo by Reagan Hoverman
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Panthers one game from competing for state title

The Ellsworth Panthers football team, under the direction of head coach Rob Heller, is on the verge of making a state championship game, something that only a handful of teams in Ellsworth history have done.

The Panthers are slated to face the Freedom Irish in the Division 4 Sectional Final game. Based on statistics and game results, both teams have hit their stride in the last several weeks and are playing their best football of the season.

Freedom goes into the sectional final game with an 11-2 record for the season and has won five straight games. As for the Ellsworth Panthers, they head into the sectional final game with a perfect team record of 12-0.

The two losses for the Freedom Irish came against Denmark and Luxemburg- Casco, both conference matches. Those teams have 9-3 and 11-2 overall records respectively. Neither loss for Freedom was particularly close. The Denmark loss was a 21-0 defeat, and the Luxemburg-Casco loss was a 28-10 contest.

Two significant factors will deter-market mine whether the Freedom Irish can defeat Ellsworth in the sectional final game. First, Freedom will have to score a significant number of points. The Ellsworth Panthers are averaging 47.4 points per game this season. Their lowest number of points in an individual game this year was against Osceola and Prescott – both times Ellsworth scored 34 points.

According to Wissports, Freedom is averaging 26 points per game this season. Scoring 26 points against Ellsworth almost certainly won’t be enough to get the job done. In addition to scoring a significant number of points, the Freedom defense will have to find a way to slow down the offensive output of Ellsworth seniors Max Grand, Ashten Quade and Jack Janke.

It’s hard to put into context just how impressive those three aforementioned players have been this season. Janke, the team’s quarterback, has passed for 1,026 yards this year, Grand has rushed for 1,431 yards, Quade has rushed for 756 yards, and Quade has 680 receiving yards. The three of them account for nearly all of the Panthers’ offensive output.

Ellsworth plays a smashmouth, run-heavy style of football that has strategic passing opportunities mixed into the play calling. The Panthers have amassed 3,191 rushing yards this season to go along with 53 rushing touchdowns. As for the air attack, Ellsworth has 1,042 passing yards as well as 11 passing touchdowns. The offense is explosive, to put it mildly. Without finding a way to slow down the offensive output of Janke, Quade and Grand, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Freedom defeats Ellsworth.

According to the Wissports stats, Freedom is a team that has been offensively balanced this season. The Irish have accumulated 1,638 yards passing as well as 19 touchdowns and have 1,652 rushing yards as well as 21 rushing touchdowns. The Panthers will have to find a way to slow down Carter Kriewaldt, who has 1,236 of the 1,638 total Irish rushing yards this season.

For Ellsworth to win, they will have to keep doing more of the same. The speed in the backfield and on the edge of Grand and Quade is something that Heller will have to continue to take advantage of. During the playoff game on the road against the Northwestern Tigers, Grand and Quade were showing off their speed as they racked up rushing yards en route to a blowout victory. The home team chain gang could be heard talking to each other saying, “We haven’t seen a team this year with speed like this.” Getting Grand and Quade going early will be critical.

One aspect of Ellsworth football that has flown under the radar this season has been turnovers. The only game in which Ellsworth potentially could have lost was on the road against Osceola in week six. In that game, the Panthers had several fumbles that contributed to a close final score of 36-26. Ellsworth will have to take care of the football on Friday night to prevent giving Freedom any cheap scoring opportunities.

After the 53-14 victory against Northwestern, Max Grand said it best when talking about next week against Freedom.

“We’re definitely feeling confident,” Grand said. “I’ve watched a little bit of film of Freedom, they’re a solid group. But I think we’re more solid. I think we’ll handle them pretty well. I’m excited to work. We look forward to going to practice each week and I think that’s what does it for us. I’m excited to get after it.”

Even if Ellsworth were to fall behind in the upcoming game against Freedom, the offense is so explosive that scoring multiple touchdowns in a short amount of time is something the Panthers are comfortable with. In addition to that, the few times that Ellsworth has trailed this season, they’ve responded incredibly well and quickly put points on the board. Coach Heller talked about his team’s ability to respond to adversity, specifically after the playoff game against Osceola.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the way that these guys responded,” Heller said. “I think that says a lot about the experience on this team and it says a lot about our goals this season.”

The goals are lofty, and the theme for the season has been “unfinished business” which refers to the 2020 season being cut short because of COVID-19. Last year, Ellsworth was undefeated when the playoffs were eventually shut down. Now, the Panthers will get their chance to play for a state championship appearance.

The game against Freedom is on Friday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. It’s a neutral site game that will be played at Marshfield High School. The winner will punch a ticket to the state title game in Madison.

November 10, 2021