PHILLIPSBURG — Throughout a standout career on the football field and on the wrestling mat, Phillipsburg High School senior Kirk Coomes has been a leader by example.

But heading into Coomes’ final campaign with the Panthers — his third season as a key member of the varsity squad — veteran Panther head coach J.B. Covington has noticed one slight change in the 6-foot-2, 220-pound running back.

“He’s speaking his voice a little bit more this year,” Covington said of the often-quiet, humble Coomes. “That’s out of his element a little bit, but he’s done a really nice job.”

The coach thinks it’s just a sign the bruising back and dominant defender has grown more confident as the years have progressed.

And why not?

He’s arguably one of the best players in the state, and happens to be playing for a confident Panther club that enters the season Friday at Clay Center as one of the best teams in not only the Mid-Continent League, but all of 3A after last year’s quarterfinal appearance and a 2-1A title just two seasons ago.

“We’re pretty excited coming into the season,” said Coomes, whose Panthers’ run ended short with a 38-26 loss to Hesston. “We’re improving every day at practice, and we’re getting things put together.”

Added to the excitement for his final campaign is Coomes’ potential chance to play the sport he loves collegiately. A rarity for Kansas athletes, Coomes is eyeing a possible offer from the Ivy League. He spent time at a camp this summer at Cornell. A 4.0 student with an already-excellent ATC score he aims to improve, Coomes hopes to go into the medical field.

Not too far fetched given his ability to surgically cut through opposing defenses.

He rushed for 1,312 yards and 17 scores a year ago and had 94 tackles at linebacker — one season after rushing for four scores, an instrumental part of the Panthers’ one-point title win in 2015.

“Just hope to improve every day — make my teammates better around me,” said Coomes. “I want to play at the next level if the opportunity presents itself. Right now, still open to anything.”

Like the rest of the Panthers, though, he is open to winning more than anything.

Phillipsburg returns the bulk of its team from an 11-1 campaign, easily, he said, the most experienced group in Covington’s tenure. And not just those with one year on varsity. Several of the Panthers’ 10 returning starters have played at the level now for three seasons. That includes Coomes, senior lineman Chris VanKooten, junior quarterback Trey Sides and senior running back/linebacker John Gower.

“We can run just about anyone in at any position,” VanKooten said when referring to the depth on the offensive and defensive lines, which lost just one starter. “Everyone knows their position.”

The Panthers, hanging their hat on defense, gave up just a little more than 13 points a game a year ago. During the regular season, Phillipsburg surrendered no more than 18 (a 40-point win) and recorded two shutouts.

“Defense wins games,” VanKooten said.

That defense has made a few changes, most notable the moving of Coomes to defensive end to make up for the graduation of Seth Jacobs.

The changes, though, didn’t slow things down much in the preseason. The Panthers even will be able to platoon their squad, often times running two or even three deep at some positions to stay fresh.

“We pretty much had everything in from the summer and so far this fall where we left off last year,” Covington said. “Feel like we’ve got a lot more depth than we’ve ever had.”

It’s clear to Covington that Coomes and company are a confident bunch. With those kind of numbers and that kind of experience, that fact would be difficult to argue.