Early this morning (well, alright, it was only 8 a.m.) students, parents, grandparents, extended family and fans gathered inside the gym of Ellsworth High School to show our Panther pride. Our boys are off to state again.
They are the quintessential team, the latest in a basketball dynasty at Ellsworth to return to the big stage … they’ve done it in five consecutive seasons. Hard work and dedication brought them here, and it will take the same to get them through the next few days.
I’ve been to this send-off before … with the band playing the rousing school spirit song, the cheerleaders getting everyone on their feet, and the players sitting modestly on chairs to face their fans.
I don’t know that the excitement ever wanes. Certainly it hasn’t for the Ellsworth Panther fans, or for this little town in the far southwestern corner of Nobles County.
As I drove toward town this morning, I smiled at the signs posted along Minnesota 91. "Go, Fight, Win," "Go Panthers," and my personal favorite and a repeat of previous years: "Fed the cows, checked the gate, our boys won, we’re back to state."
Inside the school, the remnants of egg bake were in pans in the home ec room … prepared by the Panther player moms and served to the team before the send-off. They’ve done this five years in a row … they’ve had plenty of experience!
With the moms feeding their tummies, the dads fed their spirit. They combined with the cheerleaders to send their boys off in style. Clad in EHS letterman’s jackets (Leighton Gruis and Clayton Schilling had the versions from their own high school careers), they ripped them open to reveal, "G-O P-A-N-T-H-E-R-S-!"
2009 EHS grad Adam VanderStoep returned to the gym this morning to wish the boys well. He said he’d had a dream three times this winter in which he was sitting on the sidelines, telling Tyler Morris to "put me in coach." Morris kept saying "no, I can’t … you graduated."
VanderStoep gave some words of wisdom for this year’s team: "Don’t weather the storm at State … be the storm."
Students … nearly all of them … were clad in the school colors of maroon and gold. So were many of the teachers, the families and the fans. Those that didn’t come in the proper colors could purchase the latest in maroon and gold T-shirt apparel. The back of my new shirt reads: "We play for those who came before; We set the standards for those who will follow; We are the Panthers."
Of course, the back of the shirt includes a team roster … and there, at No. 43, is my nephew Matt … the reason for which I am a Panther fan. (He’s pictured above with teammate, fellow senior, friend and basketball standout Trevor Gruis.)
Now, I’m not going to get all sentimental here about my nephew … mostly because I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like it. It’s not fair to him that he has an aunt who works for a newspaper, and it’s not fair to the entire team … they have all worked super hard to get to where they are (both on and off the court – Superintendent George Berndt said every one of them is on the A or B Honor Roll.)
The Ellsworth Panthers wouldn’t have made it this far without teamwork, and every single member on that team has contributed. We have our star players in Trevor Gruis and Casey Schilling, they score the most points game after game, and we have our wonderful three-point shooters in Dalton Huisman and Nick Nolte.
Then we have my nephew Matt, the fifth starter. Since I don’t know basketball lingo very well, I call him the great defender … defense is his thing, but I must say it gets very exciting when he scores some points! Matt and fellow senior (there’s just three on this year’s team), Tyler Chapa, trade off playing time. A while back, I read somewhere that between Matt and Tyler, they need to score 15 to 20 points per game to help the team. I didn’t know that, but then I don’t have a sports reporter’s mind to follow stats and plays and all that other stuff that goes into playing basketball.
I’m just a fan … a proud auntie of a nephew with a dream. Funny how, over time, their dreams become our dreams.
So, best of luck at State to our Ellsworth Panthers. I’d say, "Do us proud!" but I know you already have!