Head Coach: R.J. Haines (15th season)
Career Record: 89-83, 75-65 at Manteno
Last Playoff: Class 4A Opening Round, 2019
Best Playoff: Class 4A Third Round, 2014
2019 Record: 5-5
3/19 7 p.m. @Reed-Custer
3/26 7 p.m. Coal City
4/1 7 p.m. @Peotone
4/9 7 p.m. Streator
4/16 7 p.m. @Herscher
Throughout his tenure as a football coach, both with the Panthers and elsewhere, Manteno’s R.J. Haines has developed some of the area’s best quarterbacks that have lit up scoreboards on Friday nights and this year looks to be no exception.
Senior quarterback Caleb Borkenhagen returns under center after throwing for 2700 yards and 27 touchdowns over the past two seasons, and even with an abbreviated schedule, that number will likely again increase by a hefty chunk this spring.
Borkenhagen also proved he could move the ball with his legs, averaging five yards per carry and scoring four rushing touchdowns last year.
“Having Caleb back in his third year of starting has made our teaching curb and transition that much easier, especially in these times,” Haines said. “We’re lucky. It’s been pretty easy in that regard.”
Borkenhagen’s top returning target, Cole Jackson, is coming off a year where he caught 21 passes for 429 yards and six touchdowns, both top 10 numbers in the area. Justin Levesque and company will have to step up to complement Jackson with Bradley University baseball commit Luke Trepanier out for the season. Trepanier finished fourth in the area with 740 receiving yards last year.
Perhaps most notably, the Panthers will be without another key piece of their offense. Tackle Josh Gesky and his 6-foot-5, 285-pound frame have gone down to Champaign, where Gesky enrolled a semester early at the University of Illinois, where he’ll play in the trenches.
“Josh got the opportunity of a lifetime that he couldn’t pass on,” Haines said of Gesky. “He’s on a five-and-a-half year football scholarship playing Big Ten football.
“All of our coaches and players support him and couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Seniors Joey Cole, Justin Wilson, and Brandon Hampton will help bolster the offensive line.
Junior running back Logan Worobey will take over ballcarrying duties after workhorse Davey Wurster’s graduation. Wurster’s departure leaves 894 yards and 11 touchdowns out of last year’s backfield up for grabs.
Worobey and Hampton will also be key players at linebacker. Levesque recorded 20 tackles last year from his spot in the secondary.
The Panthers have just seven seniors, 14 juniors, and five sophomores on this year’s roster, with the loss of two key seniors to their college plans showing up in the depth department.
“Overall, we’re low on numbers top to bottom,” said Haines. “But all of our kids can play and will contribute at some point this year.”
With low numbers, the Panthers are on slippery ice and will need to stay healthy, especially in key positions if they want to stay competitive. Two years ago, the injury bug hit the team and they finished an uncharacteristic 1-8 before rebounding to make the playoffs last year with a 5-4 regular season.
On the flip side, history has indicated Haines has done well with experienced quarterbacks, one of which he certainly has in Panther purple this spring.