It’s been a handful of years since the University Prep football team was in jeopardy of folding.
Declining participation and in-season injuries caused the varsity numbers to drop into the teens. But the actions of a small group of players kept hopes alive for future Panthers.
Today, U-Prep’s back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in program history is fueling the culture transformation.
“It’s good to remind them they had 13 to 14 guys not that long ago and those kids gave these guys the opportunity to continue to play,” said Darren Trueblood, who is in his second year as U-Prep’s head coach. “Knowing the history is important in making those connections to build a tradition and show we are on the rise.”
Fifty-five kids are scheduled to suit up in the Aug. 30 season opener against Pierce across both the junior varsity and varsity levels. And while those lights might shine bright on Friday nights, Trueblood’s guidance has the Panthers focused on making a difference on campus in order to elevate more than just their football team.
“When (Trueblood) came in he changed the mentality to make it a group effort, for the whole school, not just the football team, to be positive role models and important leaders in the community,” said senior tight end Trayton Laustalot. “We want to be people who students and staff want to watch on Fridays.”
The path U-Prep is on has the school buzzing. For most public charter schools, athletics aren’t always near the top of the priority list of extracurricular activities. U-Prep can’t be included in that group any more.
“We’re trying to match the other programs on campus,” Trueblood said. “The culture set by the administration is supportive of the kids with music, the arts and academics. They’re trying to bring athletics up to the same level.”
Keeping the Panthers on the right track is a pair of third-year varsity starters in Laustalot and Cole Abel, both of which will be key contributors on both sides of the ball. The 6-foot-3 Laustalot led the team in every receiving category last season with receptions (28), yards (470) and touchdowns (7). Abel will see primary touches as the running back in U-Prep’s single-back, shotgun-fly scheme and be the leader of the defense at inside linebacker.
U-Prep has to break in a new quarterback in senior lefty Trevor Trueblood, Darren’s son, who has an arsenal at his disposal, along with the ability to run an up-tempo offense, Trevor said. Junior running back Jacob Reuss will see an expanded role in the backfield after some time there last year. Versatile backs Riley Seay, who led the team in rushing (606 yards), touchdowns (8) and all-purpose yards (1,089) in 2018, and Damon Uribe are slotted as the fly-backs. Both can run and catch and be factors in the return game.
“Those guys are special, and Damon will be the fastest kid on the field every night,” Darren Trueblood said.
Kalani Cheeseman and 6-3, 225-pound Matthew Babiasz anchor an inexperienced offensive line where coach Trueblood suggests the position group has the most room to improve to be competitive. Newcomer Noah Weaver is a lineman expected to contribute in the trenches as well.
“Noah comes in as a natural talent who can help us on the line,” said Seay. “He’s a big dude, ready to pound some heads and get physical.”
In U-Prep’s 4-4 defense, the linebackers are the key and Trueblood believes he has one of the best in the section in Abel, who has tallied 190 tackles across 20 varsity games. Trevor Trueblood lines up next to him at inside linebacker, forming a duo that will force every opponent to change up their running scheme to get outside leverage.
“I feel that defensively we know what’s going to happen before it does,” Abel said, pointing out experience and instincts are strengths in 2019.
Other playmakers on the defensive side of the ball include Justin Zedonis on the line, Reuss as a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker, and Laustalot splitting time at linebacker and safety. Seay, Uribe and Omar Pineda factor in the defensive backfield.
The schedule is in U-Prep’s favor to start the year. Through the Panthers’ first six contests, only one opponent posted a winning record in 2018. However, it’s tougher for U-Prep to earn playoff points being in the Mid-Valley League, which consists of lower division squads. Divisions are based on high school enrollment and U-Prep’s 506 students makes them the smallest D-III program, putting the Panthers seven kids over the max to play in Division IV.
That snag doesn’t matter to the Panthers, who want to test themselves and face the best competition they can. It’s part of turning the corner and taking the program to new heights. Their perspective of “playoffs or bust” in years past has transitioned to competing for excellence with class.
That’s what it takes to build a program.
“If we’re content at the end of the day with our effort, knowing that we did everything we could and played as a team, that’s success for us,” Laustalot said.
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