In the past four seasons, the Paradise Panthers have posted just five wins. The program has not been in the playoffs since 2008.
The Panthers enter 2016 looking to turn the program around and hoping to contend for the postseason again.
“We want to change things and prove everyone wrong,” said senior lineman Seth Grammer. “All the seniors on the team want to make the playoffs and go out with a bang.”
To lead the way, the Panthers welcome Ronnie Gage, who won a pair of state championships at Lewisville and has piled up 180 wins in 24 seasons as a head coach. He spent the past six years at Barbers Hill, going 40-26.
As in his previous stops at Northwest, Lewisville, Barbers Hill and Austin College, Gage warns that rebuilding is a process that takes work and time.
“We’re putting in a lot of time,” he said. “To build a program doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to be patient. You try to build on the positives and break the bad habits to get things the way you want it.”
“My job is to get the program in a competitive state. It’s no different than Barbers Hill, Austin College or Lewisville where we were starting from scratch.”
The Panthers do have 18 seniors to lay the groundwork.
But even the seniors began the fall learning a new offense and defense.
The Panthers bring back leading rusher Lane Upton to run behind a big offensive line.
Cameron Chasteen returns at quarterback but has been challenged in the fall for the job by Patrick Dorado.
“We feel we have two we can lean on,” Gage said.
Defensively, the Panthers gave up 40 or more points in three of their four district losses last year.
Gage and his staff have been installing a 4-2-5 and will look to a big defensive line to help dominate the line of scrimmage.
“It’s piecing a puzzle together,” Gage said.
The Panthers start the season with a pair of 3A Division II playoff teams – Holliday and Henrietta. Paradise will then face Jacksboro, City View and Early to close out non-district.
“We’d like to have some early success, but the ones that count are the final five,” Gage said. “We don’t have time to go too slow. We have to do what we can do well.”
The Panthers face tough sledding early in 4-3A Division I going to Breckenridge and then hosting defending state champion Brock. After dates with Ponder and Bowie, the Panthers close the year at home with a showdown with rival Boyd and playoff berth could likely be on the line for both squads.
Something the Panthers long for.
“We’re hungry. We’re ready to put some wins on the board for the town, community and us,” Chasteen said.
UPTON POWERS WAY TO BIG STAGE
Entering last season, Lane Upton didn’t know where he fit in the Paradise Panthers’ offensive plans.
It didn’t long for him to find his spot as the sophomore ended up leading the Panthers in rushing with 850 yards and six touchdowns.
“Last year I wasn’t expecting to be on varsity,” Upton admitted.
He didn’t realize the yards he was piling up on the way to being second-team 4-3A Division I.
“I didn’t realize what was happening. I was just doing my thing,” Upton said.
Now, the 6-0 and 190-pound junior will be the feature back for the Panthers, who will be looking to turn the corner under new head coach Ronnie Gage.
Upton will be a major part of the offense.
“I expect to get more with this new offense. Coach told me I’m going to run the ball a whole lot more,” Upton said.
He proved he’s capable of carrying the load last year. In a breakout game against Jacksboro, Upton ran for 195 yards on 21 carries, scoring a pair of touchdowns.
A big, physical runner, Upton likes to run the ball between the tackles.
“Just running straight up the middle because I don’t have much speed,” Upton said.
But it usually takes several defenders to bring him down as he fights for every yard, showing his passion for the role.
“It’s my favorite thing to do. I just love doing running the ball,” he said.
He hopes to carry the Panthers into playoff contention this season.
PANTHERS IN A CAPSULE
2015 record: 2-8, 1-4
Head coach: Ronnie Gage, first year at Paradise
Paradise struggled through 2015, going 2-8. It was the program’s fourth straight losing season. The Panthers will try to turn the corner with a new coach Ronnie Gage.
The Panthers managed only 233 yards per game last year. That average received a big boost with outbursts against Jacksboro and Alvord, in which the Panthers piled up 801 of their 2,333 yards.
The Panthers do have pieces to build around, including running back Lane Upton, who ran for 850 yards and six touchdowns. Upton had 195 yards and two touchdowns against Jacksboro.
“He’s a good runner and a tough kid,” said Gage said. “We’d be crazy not to utilize him.”
The Panthers will also spread carries around to Angus Pace, Bradley Young and Conner Snell.
At quarterback, Cameron Chasteen returns. He was 31 for 71 for 366 yards and seven interceptions last year. He threw for a season-high 94 in the final game of the year.
“I feel a lot more relaxed than last year,” Chasteen said. “We’ve all gotten better over the offseason.”
Chasteen has been competing for the starting job with Patrick Dorado in the fall.
“Cameron has the experience but it’s hard to overlook Patrick’s athleticism,” Gage said. “We’ll see how it plays out. We may have two we can lean on.”
The Panthers have several receivers, including Brent Beggs, Snell, Tristan Sims, Matt Whalen, Brysen Clark, Angus Pace and Bradley Young.
Up front, Colt Ryle is at center with the guard combination of Jared Richardson, Seth Grammer and Cody Holaway. Dylan Wise and Balin Bryant are at tackle.
“We’ve got size. We just need to be aggressive, come off the ball and be nasty,” Ryle said.
Gage expressed some reservation about the depth on the line.
“We need to stay away from the injury bug,” he said.
The Panthers will utilize tight ends Mitchell Sellers and Marshall Smith.
The Paradise defense had its bright spots, holding Alvord and Ponder to under 200 yards each in victories last year.
But for the season, the Panthers allowed 330.5 yards per game with Breckenridge, Brock and Bowie all eclipsing 400 in district play.
The Panthers are moving to a 4-2-5 this season and will look to a big defensive line that includes Seth Grammer and Jared Richardson.
“We’ll run a four-man front but will have some flexibility,” Gage said. “Seth and Jared have to play well.”
Grammer likes the potential of the defense in the new scheme.
“We have to fly around and play with reckless abandon,” he said.
Bradley Young and Will Reeves are at linebacker.
“Bradley has a good nose for the ball,” Gage said.
Ty Valentine is moving from the secondary to help at outside linebacker. He said he and the rest of the defense are picking up their assignments.
Matthew Whalen and Conner Snell are playing the corners.
The Panthers will have a tough challenge in 4-3A Division facing Breckenridge and Brock to start. After those two the rest of the district has teams facing many of the same questions. If the Panthers can gel quickly, they could be in a battle for a playoff berth over the final three weeks.
2015 PARADISE RESULTS
Red Oak Life 28, Paradise 21
Henrietta 38, Paradise 7
Jacksboro 26, Paradise 25
Krum 47, Paradise 0
Paradise 45, Alvord 0
Paradise 17, Ponder 14
Breckenridge 55, Paradise 7
Boyd 21, Paradise 14
Brock 66, Paradise 7
Bowie 44, Paradise 7
PARADISE PANTHERS 2016 ROSTER
1 … … Matthew Whalen … … 12
2 … … Brent Beggs … … 12
3 … … Gage Schneck … … 11
4 … … Patrick Dorado … … 12
5 … … Tucker Edwards … … 11
6 … … Reggie Contreras … … 10
8 … … Cameron Chasteen … … 12
10 … … Jace Essig … … 9
11 … … Ty Valentine … … 12
15 … … Bonner Brackeen … … 9
20 … … Tristan Sims … … 12
21 … … Lane Upton … … 11
22 … … Angus Pace … … 11
24 … … Conner Snell … … 12
32 … … Brysen Clark … … 10
33 … … Bradley Young … … 12
36 … … Clayton Fulkerson … … 11
40 … … Will Reeves … … 11
41 … … Kenneth Anson … … 12
50 … … Seth Grammer … … 12
51 … … Ruben Luevano … … 12
54 … … Dylan Wise … … 12
55 … … Jared Richardson … … 12
56 … … Cody Holaway … … 12
58 … … Colt Ryle … … 12
60 … … Marshall Smith … … 12
65 … … Caelen Green … … 9
66 … … Balin Bryant … … 12
71 … … Austin Largent … … 12
75 … … Arturo Licea … … 10
76 … … Dee Hill … … 11
77 … … Trevor Helton … … 10
80 … … Mitchell Sellers … … 9