Kickoff on way for Panthers

Bryan Veginski
Senior season on tap: Washington’s Drew Schlink, No. 15, was a second-team all-Mid-Illini Conference quarterback last fall when he registered 1,064 combined passing and rushing yards. The Panthers play at Springfield Lanphier Saturday in their season opener.

After a memorable 2008 season, the Washington football team is determined to reload.

The Panthers were 10-2 overall and second in the Mid-Illini Conference with a 6-1 mark.

Both losses were to Metamora, in the league opener and in the quarterfinals of the Class 5A playoffs.

Washington will try to knock off the Redbirds this season, but fans also can be sure the team will not overlook any opponent.

The Panthers thus far have stayed healthy in their quest for back-to-back 10-win seasons for the second time in school history.

“No injuries have come out of what we’ve done,” fifth-year WCHS head coach Darrell Crouch said Friday morning.

That news, combined with a productive summer in the weight room and during contact days, has Washington poised to play deep into November.

Senior Drew Schlink returns at quarterback after throwing seven touchdowns and just three interceptions.

He was a second-team all-conference pick after accounting for 1,064 yards combined on the ground and through the air.

A pair of sophomores, Zach Little and Isaac Fisher, are poised to step in at QB if necessary.

Tailback Justin Riley, a senior, is back after a first-team all-M-I season in which he netted 1,002 rushing yards and scored 16 TDs.

In front of him at fullback is senior Colton Underwood, who verbally committed to Illinois State University.

Underwood gained 809 yards on the ground and reached the end zone eight times.

Senior Evan McCauley and sophomore Dylan Reel also could receive carries at tailback. Eric Jaszarowski, a junior, is a secondary fullback.

It is the first time in Crouch’s tenure the same starting trio returned at quarterback, fullback and tailback.

There are some questions along the offensive lines following the graduation of center Andrew Gundy and tackle Jake Weston.

Gundy was a first-team all-league selection and Weston was named to the second team last year.

Right guard Mitchell Brown and right tackle Grant Dingledine, both seniors, are key figures who performed well on the offensive line a season ago.

The rest of the players in the trenches on the offensive side are: left tackle Sam Ryan, left guard Randy Bertelsen and center Jacob Brackeen, all seniors.

Seniors Andrew Watson and Austin Nichols and junior Connor Underwood are tight-end candidates.

A host of options are available at wide receiver.

Watson, seniors Robert Izaguirre, Dylan Newbury and Scott Picton, junior Ryan Grebner and Fisher all could catch passes.

Schlink also is a top choice at receiver if he is not under center.

Chase Catton made 21 receptions for 304 yards in eight games as a senior to earn first-team all-conference accolades.

Colton Underwood returns with first-team all-conference status as a defensive end after making 18 sacks in ’08.

The other DE is Bertelsen, who was third with four sacks.

In the defensive interior are run stoppers Dylan Koonce, a junior, and senior Tyler Calabrese.

In a 4-4 scheme, Connor Underwood is the strong safety with Dingledine, Brown and Jaszarowski occupying the strong side, middle and weak side linebacker slots, respectively.

Cody Meeks was a second-team all-conference linebacker last year as a senior.

Fisher, who made three late-season interceptions to lead the squad, is the free safety.

Reel and Newbury also can handle assignments at strong safety.

There are a slew of players in the mix at cornerback, including Grebner, McCauley, senior Colin Ash and junior Kyle Donarski.

Sophomore Dakota Bullard is another possibility for the secondary.

As a senior last season, Nick Brunk, was a first-team all-M-I defensive back after leading Washington with 72.5 tackles and adding two picks.

Brunk also was a special-teams dynamo.

Senior Toni Ramadani is back as the placekicker and Brackeen will punt.

Due to not getting enough practices in yet, Ramadani will miss the opener Saturday at Springfield Lanphier.

Colton Underwood and Fisher will be choices for field goals and kickoffs until Ramadani is on the field.

Crouch said Washington will be more of a package team this year.

Crouch’s tenure is the second-longest in the conference.

Five of the eight M-I teams — Canton, Dunlap, Limestone, Morton and Pekin — will have first- or second-year head coaches.

Metamora is the frontrunner after winning five straight league titles and reaching the 5A title game in ’08.

“We will try to win the conference,” said Crouch.

Also lurking is East Peoria, which returns many contributors from a team that ended a 19-year playoff drought.

Pekin is running an offense that more suits its personnel and Dunlap has been a consistent performer.

Morton and Limestone figure to make strides in the second year in their respective coach’s system.

Washington’s two-year series with Springfield Lanphier and Springfield High ends this season.

The Panthers go to Lanphier for their lone Saturday regular-season contest, while the Senators come to Babcook Field in week nine.

Richwoods and Central will be added in ’10 when the M-I converts to non-conference football games in weeks one and two.