Defending Class 2A champion Phillipsburg graduated some top-notch, all-state talent, but the cupboard is still pretty well stocked for the Panthers entering this season.

Philllipsburg coach J.B. Covington likes the mix the Panthers have as they gear up to make their title defense after a 13-0 season last year.

Phillipsburg lost a strong senior class that included all-state quarterback Trey Sides but returns five All-Mid Continent League performers. Senior lineman Noah VanKooten and junior Ty Sides were first-team all-league picks a year ago for the Panthers, who won the 2A title with a 27-0 win over Riley County in the championship game.

“We feel like we’ve got the chess pieces, we’ve just got to find the right places for each one of them,” said Covington, who enters his 17th year as Phillipsburg head coach with a 143-41 record and state championships in 2015 and 2018. “We do have a nice mix of younger athletic kids and then some older experienced kids. We’re anxious to get going.”

Covington said the biggest position voids were left at running back and linebacker.

“The last two years, we’ve lost eight really good running backs,” Covington said. “We’re trying to replace those guys, which is going to be difficult to do, but we’ve got some guys that are stepping in, working hard. Our linebacker corps has been hit hard too. We return no linebackers. Those are the two key ares we’re trying to get figured out. ‘

“It’s one of those things where we’re seeing good things in practice, but we just need to get on the field and see where we’re at there.”

The Panthers are in good shape on the offensive and defensive lines with Noah VanKooten, Parker Dibble, Tyce Jerby and Austin Miller returning.

“That will be our strength,” Covington said. “Offensive and defensive lines are big. I think we average about 230 (pounds) across the front. On both sides, we’ve got some depth there.

“Personally, I’d rather have to replace running backs and linebackers versus offensive and defensive lineman.”

Ty Sides will move from receiver to quarterback for his junior season.

“It’s an easy transition for him,” Covington said. “He understands what we’re doing and understands the game. He’s an athletic kid that will be a playmaker. He does a lot of really good things. He doesn’t have the size that Trey has, but he’s just a playmaker.

“I think Ty is going to surprise a lot of people.”

Covington said other candidates for breakout years include running backs Jake Sisson and Tyler Martin and Miller at tight end.

The Panthers have a tough early schedule, facing Plainville, Smith Center and Norton during their first four games. They open at home against Ellis.

“Early on, we’re going to get challenged big-time,” Covington said. 

Covington said he feels like the Panthers have a good opportunity to pick up where they left off.

“We’ve worked on our culture here for several years,”  Covington said. “I think we’ve got a good foundation and the kids understand what we’re all about and what we try to do. It’s one of those things where we’ve had some really good athletes sit back and wait their turn. It’s their turn now and they’ve got to step up for us.”