Gielczyk: Frankfort Rolling, Gaining Back Confidence

Frankfort’s football team rolled to an undefeated regular season last year, winning the Northern Michigan Football League’s Leaders Division and reached the Division 8 regional championship game, finishing 11-1 overall.

Although the Panthers won’t be undefeated again this season after dropping a 31-6 decision to four-time defending Division 8 state champion Muskegon Catholic Central in week two, they have every chance of making a deeper run in the MHSAA state playoffs.

The Panthers won their next two games after losing to the Crusaders and are 3-1 overall going into this Friday night’s league contest with Johannesburg-Lewiston, which is also 3-1, have every expectation of having another memorable season with a solid group of juniors from last year returning as senior leaders.

“We are progressing well through four weeks of the season,” Panthers’ head coach Matt Stapleton said. “We started the season with high expectations, but like anything — and I’ve said this for years — when you put together a team it’s like a big puzzle. You never know how those pieces are going to fit.

“You get into those first few weeks of the season, you kind of see who’s going to fit into certain spots, who can get the job done. We had an early test in week two with Muskegon Catholic, and that was coming off a solid game with Manton.”

Frankfort’s offense was sharp in the opener against the Rangers, putting up 70 points. But the Panthers learned they had a few things to address on defense with a high powered offense that can score at a record clip coming to Lockhart Field in the Crusaders.

Some people might ask why schedule such a team, but there was reason to what might seem at first blush to be madness.

“When we scheduled this game, we knew it would do a couple of things for us,” said Stapleton. “One is show us the kind of competitiveness and the level we’re going to need to be at if we want to compete at the end of the year.

“And number two it would give us an idea of what we have. Last year we rattled off a few nice wins at the beginning of the season. It’s just hard to know exactly what you have until you play a really good team. We were able to look at some spots we needed to improve on, not only player-wise, but also game plan and coaching.”

The Panthers have made some changes over the last few weeks, not a fire sale, but ones that the coaching staff felt could really help the team as it moves into a couple of big weeks.

Following the game Friday night, the Panthers face Glen Lake, St. Ignace and Charlevoix. The last two games have served to get the Panthers’ legs back under them, build their confidence and at the same time really try to correct some of the things they were struggling with.

Stapleton likes where the Panthers are at right now, making improvements each week and seem to be on pace to peak at the right time.

“This is the first year we haven’t had any sophomores up in a while,” Stapleton added. “This junior and senior group have won a lot of games. They went undefeated in the seventh grade and eighth grade, and had an undefeated season together on the (junior varsity), so they’re expectations are extremely high.

“But, other than that, from a coach ability standpoint all our guys are ‘yes sir,’ and ‘no, sir.’ They show up every day to work, and there have been no side issues. This group have been really a blessing to coach.

“I can’t remember an easier first two weeks when we started the season, as far as two-a-days go and kids working hard, showing up. It reminds me a lot of the group we had two years ago. We had really good senior leadership, and this year we have good senior leadership.”

Frankfort came into the pre-season needing to fill three spots up front vacated by three all-conference players, with only Matthew Stefanski coming back for his fourth year as a starter at left tackle and Gabe Johnson returning at center.

The Panthers had to find replacements at both guard spots and right tackle. Lee Barnes and Andrew Manning were back from last year, and had started some games as well as filled valuable reserve roles. A couple of junior varsity guys have jumped into the mix and have done a nice job under the tutelage of line coach Derek Jacks.

Also playing a big part in the team’s early success has been the development of Kirk Myers at quarterback, who was a receiver last year. He’s been clutch in big situations, made some big throws and is really starting to direct the offense with confidence and authority.

Returning senior running back Griffin Kelly came on strong in the 2015 playoffs and finished as an all-state selection last year.

Kelly certainly is an important component in the Frankfort offense, he’s not the only weapon the Panthers have in the backfield. Conner Smith is back to give the Panthers a potent one-two punch.

“Any time you have a guy like Griffin Kelly in your backfield, he’s going to make you a pretty good coach,” Stapleton said. “Really, we’ve tried to keep things fairly simple just for that reason.

“Sometimes it doesn’t matter what offense you’re running, split back veer, or wing T or the spread, sometimes doing too much and not doing it very well is not very conducive to success. Griffin is a pretty good player, so we’re going to get him the ball.”

The Panthers also have some receivers back from last year, including three-year starter Matt Loney who had a seven-catch performance in last weeks’ win over Mancelona. It gives Frankfort valuable balance on offense, the ability to run or pass on almost any play that will help the Panthers down the road.

Six starters departed off last year’s defense, making that side of the ball a bit more of a puzzle for the Panther coaches as far as finding the right pieces.

But, the kids who have been plugged into those holes have been getting better each week. After surrendering 40 points in a 70-40 win in the season opener, the Panthers held Muskegon Catholic to just seven points in the first half and impressed Stapleton with their effort against a team that can score points in a hurry.

“The last two weeks we’ve focused on fundamentals, keys, reads, playing downhill and more aggressive,” added Stapleton. “Our tackling has improved. Some of that, too, is we’ve moved a few guys into some spots that maybe will make them able to contribute a little more. I think that’s helped us a lot.”

Right now, the Panthers’ strength appears to be in the defensive line, and its linebacking crew is getting better. Kelly kind of leads that charge. Smith, who played a lot of defensive line for the Panthers in the past, is filling one of those linebacker spots and is really progressing.

The secondary has two guys back in Myers and Loney, and they have started to direct traffic back there. One senior who Stapleton says has really stepped up on both offense and defense after being limited by injuries last year is Mack Powell.

“Mack is a really fast kid, loves football and is hard worker,” Stapleton said. “He’s healthy, and starting at corner for us. He’s also starting as a receiver. It gives us some real deep ball threats on offense, and speed in the secondary. Those two have been a great addition to our starting lineup.”

Frankfort is not living in the past. Last year’s team is gone. What it accomplished is now history.

This year’s team is in control of its own identity, its own destiny … and it’s going to leave its own legacy, and write its own chapter in the school’s football history.

It serves to keep the Panthers hungry, and wanting more.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. 

Categories: Football