By Steve Gunn

HESPERIA – After a 9-0 regular season last year, the Hesperia football team had high expectations for 2016.Sport Clips logo on across the top football photo artLSJ Logo incert

And the hype was heightened in Week 1, when the Panthers blew past Montabella 59-0.

But the next few games didn’t go according to script.

There was a hearbreaking 32-30 loss to Godwin Heights, followed by a 19-6 conference loss to Morley-Stanwood.

Suddenly the perfect season was well in the past, and the Panthers were scrambling to stay in the Central State Activities Association Silver Division title race and keep their playoff hopes alive.

New Coach Doug Bolles, who took over after the sudden resignation of Aaron Sims over the summer, called his troops together after the Morley-Stanwood loss and summed up the situation for them.

“(Morley-Stanwood) physically took it to us,” Bolles said. “We were still hanging on last year. After the game I came in and said we have to change some stuff. Last year was last year, and we have to move forward. If you’re with me come to practice on Monday and let’s go to work.

“They showed up on Monday ready to work, and things have been rolling pretty well since then.”

Indeed. The Panthers have won three in a row, including an impressive 54-6 win over rival Holton, a 51-0 victory over White Cloud and a 21-0 decision over Lakeview last Friday.

Hesperia is currently 4-2 overall and 3-1 in the conference.

Now the Panthers face a very important three weeks to end the regular season, including a crucial showdown Friday against Kent City in their final conference game.

Kent City and Morley-Stanwood are also 3-1 in the CSAA Silver. Morley-Stanwood will be heavily favored to beat White Cloud on Friday and claim a share of the conference title. That means the Hesperia-Kent City winner will probably get the other half of the championship.

But there’s more than just the league race on the line for Hesperia. The Panthers need two wins in their last three games to get to six wins and secure a playoff spot. That’s something Hesperia desperately wants, particularly after losing 42-7 to Saugatuck in the opening round of the postseason last year.

After the showdown with Kent City on Friday, the Panthers will visit undefeated and No. 1 ranked Muskegon Catholic in Week 8, then face a currently winless Shelby team in Week 9.

“We knew, after we started out 1-2, and because of what’s looming in Week 8 (Muskegon Catholic), that we couldn’t lose another game,” Bolles said. “Now two of our last three games are at home. If we can get it done at home we’re going to get to six wins. It will be a huge win for the program if we can get it done on Friday.”

That won’t be easy, according to Bolles.

“Kent City was down to Morley last week 17-0 and came back and won,” he said. “We’re going to have our hands full. But if our defense plays like it did last week, we’ll be fine on Friday night.”

The Panthers are powered by a great ground game, which features two great running backs – Gerritt Yates and Kanin Witte.

Yates has piled up 745 yards on the ground on 72 carries with nine touchdowns. He’s averaging 124 yards per game. Witte has 642 yards on 76 carries and nine touchdowns, and averages 107 yards per game.

Witte is also a force on defense with six interceptions this season. Gage Balkema is the team’s leading tackler with 47 stops.

Kent City, under first-year Coach Bill Crane, is in the same situation at Hesperia, with a 4-2 overall record and 3-1 league mark.

The Eagles will be just as motivated on Friday to capture at least a share of the conference crown and keep their playoff hopes alive.

The situation is particularly exciting for Kent City, following a 1-8 season in 2015.

“We’ve talked about it (the conference title) and haven’t tried to hide anything from the kids,” Crane said. “This would be our first conference championship in 16 years. We are trying to change the culture here and become a school that competes for the league title each year.”

The Eagles opened the season with a 28-8 loss to Ravenna, beat Comstock 50-12 and Holton 30-0, lost a tough one to Lakeview 25-20, then bounced back with a huge 22-7 win over Morley-Stanwood last week

“Last week we were down 17-0 early in the second quarter,” Crane said. “We kept talking to the kids about the next play, the next play and we scored 22 unanswered points to win.

“The kids have bought into the system and it’s good to see them working hard and willing to be coached and listening to what we are trying to do. We have been stressing defense since Day 1.”