PREP FOOTBALL: Panthers open new stadium vs. Knox (08/23)

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By Josh Claywell

A new era begins at 7:30 tonight for the Elizabethtown Panthers, who will open their on-campus stadium against longtime rival Fort Knox.

But the stadium isn’t the only thing the Panthers want fans to be excited about.

Sophomore quarterback Jack Wilson said fans can expect a new-look team with high expectations. The Panthers want to put the last two seasons, when they a combined went 1-21, behind them.

“Everyone is excited and ready to go,” Wilson said. “We’re ready to show people we’re a different team and that we’re ready to win. I think we just have to focus on the game and not really worry about the crowd. We just have to go out there and play our game, just like we have in the preseason.”

While playing in the stadium for the first time will be an experience the Panthers won’t soon forget, third-year coach Adam Billings said it’s important for his team to not get caught up in the hoopla.

But Billings also pointed out his players aren’t worried about breaking in the stadium; their focus has been on the Eagles and getting this season off to a good start with a win.

“When you talk about focus, you’re talking about the focus we had back in December and the focus we had back in January and all through the offseason and in spring practice,” he said. “We haven’t really talked about the stadium. The stadium is just the cream on top; it’s just something extra that makes it special.”

Both teams could use a win after rough seasons a year ago.

Fort Knox went 1-9 and missed the playoffs, while Elizabethtown lost 10 straight games following a season-opening 23-15 win over the Eagles.

“We’ve won one game in two years, and I feel like the guys on this team want to distance themselves from that as much as possible,” Billings said. “Losing leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But I think our kids have risen to the occasion. We’ve worked harder, we’ve raised the bar and the commitment level has drastically changed.”

The same could be said of Fort Knox, which gets to hit the reset button with the return of Coach Brandon Combs, who stepped down following the 2010 season.

The Eagles hope to secure one of the four playoff spots in the seven-team Class 2-A, District 4.

“I’m more nervous for the kids,” Combs said of his return. “My expectations have always been high for them, and they know that. I just want them to do well. As long as they prepare themselves before the game, they’ll do fine.”

Fort Knox senior Moses Bell said the Eagles, who have just 10 returning players, are eager to get things going.

“I expect a good game out of E’town,” he said. “They’ve been practicing hard and we’ve been practicing hard to get ready for this game. The only thing I can hope for is our team to come together as a family like we want it to and for us to come out and do what we’re supposed to do. We’re ready and we’re motivated to get going.”

Both quarterbacks – Wilson and Fort Knox junior Deonza Irving – are making their first starts.

Wilson, who was 1-of-7 Panthers to play quarterback last season, said he expects to be nervous when he first steps on the field.

“Right now, I’m not very nervous,” he said. “But when tomorrow comes, I’ll probably be a little more nervous. I have good experience from getting to play some last year. I’ll have some butterflies, but they’ll hopefully be gone after that first play. I’ll be ready.”

Irving, meanwhile, was Fort Knox’s quarterback in the summer, but he missed some time when school started for undisclosed reasons.

Irving will start in place of junior Kelvin Pickens, who is questionable for tonight’s game. Combs said having Irving at quarterback could make the Eagles dangerous.

“He looks like he’s never missed a beat,” Combs said. “(Irving) is a really good running back with great instincts. He’s a great football player and a great defensive player. He just does everything you want him to do. He’s going to be a big force for us. He doesn’t let up. He goes hard all the time, and you’ve got to love that as a coach.”

Both teams will have several young and inexperienced players. Combs and Billings said it’ll be trial by fire, but they hope good things will happen for both of their squads.

“I expect our team to come out blazing,” Billings said. “We’ve got some young guys, and you always worry about them being nervous, but I think they’ll play better because of it. Do we expect them to be a little nervous tomorrow night? Do we expect them to have butterflies? Yeah. I hope they’re nervous about the game because it’ll make them fight harder.”

Josh Claywell can be reached at 270-505-1752 or jclaywell@thenewsenterprise.com.