IMBLER THIN, BUT NOT MEEK
By Pierre LaBossire
Observer Staff Writer
IMBLER Every game the Imbler Panthers take the field for a gridiron dust-up, they look around the sidelines and see that they are outnumbered sometimes by as much as 3-1.
That doesn't mean they're outmanned, however.
The players hope that when their opponents look across the field and only see five or six guys standing on the sidelines during the game, that they won't take the Panthers seriously.
"We like the underdog feeling. We don't need 50 guys to compete," said running back Scott Skillings.
Imbler's secret might be out, however. While the Panthers are thin (most 1A eight-man squads have more players than 2A Imbler), they are talented. They are 6-1 on the season and ranked No. 7 in the state.
This was a team that has been forged through some adversity and tough times, and ultimately, good old-fashioned experience.
The same kids have played together since junior high and put together some good seasons in middle school. They played together as sophomores and freshmen and struggled through lean times going up against seniors and juniors on the other teams. Those hard times might have made the kids tougher. It certainly makes them appreciate the last couple of seasons.
Last year, everything came together and Imbler had a fantastic year, tying for the league title, only to see its postseason chances dashed by losing out on a tiebreaker.
Lineman Jason McKaig said the reason Imbler is so good with so few players is experience. Most of the players are seniors and juniors.
"We all know what it takes (to compete)," McKaig said. "All of us will play for each other with what we've got."
Coach Lee Lowe agrees that experience makes these kids good.
"I don't care where you're at, if you don't have good athletes, you're not going to be successful," he said.
Lowe said having fewer than 20 kids on the team (Imbler dropped down to a scary 16 for a couple of games after starters Justin Volle and Moose Hudson were hurt. Volle has since returned to the line-up) makes it hard to practice. It's impossible for the team to run any 11-on-11 drills, for instance.
What that means is that the players perhaps have to spend more time studying film.
"They're dedicated enough that they spend the extra time it takes at the chalkboard and in the film room," said Lowe.
After Volle and Hudson went down in successive games, "it got a little worrisome," said Skillings.
After the already thin line-up got even smaller, McKaig said the players simply spent more time working on their conditioning because they knew each kid would have to play that much more.
"We definitely got in better shape," he said.
Virtually every kid on the team has to play both offense and defense, except for quarterback Trevor Crow ("That punk," commented Skillings).
Crow said 35 kids originally came out for the team this summer, but numbers were whittled down.
"The people who stayed were the people we needed," he said.
Probably the highlight of Imbler's season was a last-minute 30-27 road win against Grant Union, which of course, fielded about 45 players for that game. The Panther players said Grant Union went into that game pretty confident that they would roll over the little team from Imbler.
This win really served notice to the rest of the Wapiti League that Imbler was for real.
"That game was intense. That was the best ball we've played all season," said Skillings. "I think they underestimated us."
A couple of weeks later, Imbler suffered its only loss in a tough defensive battle against Nyssa. The team played well, but lost 12-0, basically on two big Nyssa plays in the fourth quarter.
"Those were two perfect plays. They had 223 yards of offense the whole game, and they got 98 yards on those two plays," McKaig said.
Unfortunately, Imbler faces a situation similar to last year. Imbler could end up in a three-way tie for first with an 8-1 record. If that happens, Imbler probably doesn't get to go to postseason (Nyssa and Grant Union would probably have the edge in the Azzi tiebreaker system and would move on.)
This is almost exactly what happened last year. Because of one play in a game against Enterprise, Imbler lost, then lost out on the tiebreaker.
The players groan when they think about the possibility of losing the tiebreaker again this year. It's just one more hurdle they must all get over together.
In any case, Lowe knows that he has a special group right now. Next year, it might be back to a rebuilding season with a new group of kids.
"That's life and times at a small school," he said.