Coach Mike Wilson of the Middle Township High School football team feels a lot more comfortable this year than last.
Middle hired Wilson as the head coach a few weeks before training camp started last year. Even though Wilson has been an assistant, it was a hasty transition.
Wilson has had the benefit of the entire offseason this year.
"Last year we felt like we were digging ourselves out of a hole," Wilson said. "We're way ahead of where we were last year at this time."
The Panthers, who finished 1-9 last year, didn't let the offseason go to waste. They stressed weight training and participated in several seven-on-seven competitions.
"We took a power-lifting mentality," Wilson said. "We said we're not going to be pushed around this year. Our kids had to get a certain amount of lifts in to participate in our camps, a certain amount of lifts in to be on the team."
If the number of players is any measuring stick, Middle is already moving forward.
The Panthers have 65 players in the program, including 40 on the varsity. Wilson isn't looking for quick fixes. As was the case last year, no freshmen will play varsity.
"In years past, some kids got moved up too fast," Wilson said. "They got discouraged, and they left. We used to lose a lot of kids between freshman and sophomore years."
Middle's strength will be its offensive and defensive lines. Seniors Brandon Belger, John Edwards and Joe Johnson all have varsity experience.
Wilson said sophomore linemen Jim Pearson, Nick Rhinesmith and John Reyes all weigh 240 pounds or more and have plenty of potential.
The Panthers will emphasize the run on offense but try to throw more than they did last year. Wilson wants to run 70 percent of the time and throw it the other 30 percent. Senior Ben Keith and sophomore Brian Belger are the top candidates to start at quarterback.
"We ran for more than 2,000 yards last year," Wilson said. "We feel throwing the ball will open up the offense for a lot more big plays."
On defense, Middle will try to limit the big play.
"We're going to play everything in front of us," Wilson said. "If we can stop the big play and control the ball on offense, we can shorten games and be competitive."
The Panthers are young with just five seniors. But Wilson says the Panthers are capable of winning four or five games this season.
"We want to be competitive in every game we play," he said. "We want to be in the game in the third and fourth quarters."
Contact Michael McGarry:
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 2
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2004
PLAYOFF RECORD: 0-2
LEAGUE/GROUP: Cape-Atlantic League United/South Jersey Group II
COACH: Mike Wilson (1-9, one year)
2010 RECORD: 1-9
2011 PREDICTION: Rebuilding - Panthers should improve on last season's win total but could be a year away with just five seniors.
GAME TO WATCH: Sept. 30 at Ocean City. These Cape May County rivals meet for the second straight season after not playing for more than 15 years. Ocean City won 14-13 last year.