What a difference a year makes

The Panthers were on the prowl with swagger in 2011. This year, the squad is a bit of a wounded animal.

We dedicated the paper's space to the warm and fuzzy stuff. Here you'll read about the Erie-Prophetstown Panthers' precarious entry into the postseason.

Their coach, Elizabeth Green, was downright frank while talking about her ravaged roster as I sat down with her to chat in the commons area at Erie High School on Thursday evening. She sees Newman as the favorite at the Class 1A Rock Falls Regional. Alleman will be in the mix, too.

Green simply hopes her team, which the title last year at Centennial Park, can be one of the seven teams that advances this time around.

At the very least, she's hopeful her son, Josh, will make it through if the team comes up short.

Connor Saad's season is over, less than 12 months removed from him running the 3.1-mile Detweiler Park course in 16 minutes, 41 seconds, good for 111th in the state in Class 1A.

Also over is Braedon Bonnell's season. He's one of a few athletes who defected from the gridiron to run cross country. He was having a solid season and helped offset the loss of Saad until he recently endured a muscle strained deemed severe enough that he wouldn't return in time for the postseason.

Lucas White, who filled Saad's No. 3 spot, is out of action, too. Matthew Mallary, a key cog in last year's state run, is now a member of Alleman's frighteningly talented team. If you read the paper this past winter, you know why he transfered. Regardless of terms of his departure, bet on his reunion with his former teammates evoking mixed feelings Saturday morning.

If it hasn't been one thing, it's been another for Green's gang. She has some talented kids stepping up and into roles, but the voids left are too big for the Panthers to be a serious threat to return to Detwiler.

That doesn't mean they're not going down without a fight. Seniors Devin Johnson and Josh Green are far too proud for that. And they're not afraid of a challenge. Last year, Green was knocked down by a pair of Oregon runners during the 1A sectional on the Hawks' home course, Oregon Park West.

"I just want that to be known – this sport is physical," Johnson said. "There's bows and there's knees."

Green said he got up and saw the pair go on to cut around a tree, as well.

"After all that, I wasn't about to let them go," he said. "So I chased them down."

There will undoubtedly be jostling alongside the canal at Centennial Park on Saturday morning. Maybe a little contact – incidental or not – is just what it will take to ignite a fire under the Panthers and restore their swagger.

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