Fans of the Ridgeland Panthers football team got plenty to see during Thursday night's annual Black and Silver spring game at Bowers and Painter Field.
Coaches divided the field in half with varsity players working on one end of the turf and younger and newer players going through a scrimmage on the other.
The division was necessary to accommodate the 137 players that dressed out for the scrimmage, the most in school history.
"We only had about 35 kids my first year here (2004) and we could have all gotten dressed in my car," said head coach Mark Mariakis with a chuckle. "Now we've got them everywhere and we've come along way. It's taken dedication of a lot of people, like the eighth graders that came out here this spring. We were hitting in full pads from Day 1 and those guys stayed out here and sacrificed. Hopefully that will work out for all of us."
In terms of quantity, Ridgeland's 2013 graduating class was not the biggest the team has ever lost. However, the overall quality of what Mariakis and his staff will have to replace is noteworthy.
The Panthers graduated all but about 1,000 of their 5,400-plus rushing yards from a season ago and all but nine of their 73 rushing touchdowns. That ground game put up 35 or more points a dozen times in 2012 and helped to reel off 13 straight wins to put Ridgeland in the Class AAAA state championship game at the Georgia Dome.
Six players from last year have signed college letters of intent and several more key spots will also have to be filled, including at the quarterback spot, in the secondary, and in the kicking game.
"It's hard to tell just how they looked until we get a chance to watch the film, but we got a lot of kids some action tonight," Mariakis said. "We had a good spring with no serious injuries. We filled some holes that we needed to fill, but we're still a long way away from where we need to be and what we need to be. The summer is going to be vital. Like we told them, spring is just the first step toward getting ready for that first game."
Hunter Kaufhold, taking over for Trevor Long at quarterback, directed the varsity offense on multiple scoring drives while Noah Cooper and George Johnson each broke off several impressive runs. Keyshawn Forston pulled down a couple of nice catches at receiver, and rising freshman fullback Chris Henderson did his part to catch the eye of the coaches with some tough carries.
"Hunter grew up at quarterback over the these last two weeks, and did a better job of controlling the offense toward the end of the spring," Mariakis said. "Our veterans also had a good spring. Most of the questions about are guys that haven't had a whole lot of playing time on Friday nights, except late in a few games, and now we're asking a lot of them to start ball games for us and mentally work themselves to where they need to be to do that."
Another familiar face returning to the Panthers is lineman Quinton Montgomery, who is returning to the team after not playing last year. Mariakis added that its always nice to have experience on the line, especially in such a run-heavy offense.
"We're only graduating two guys up front, but they were our guards, and the guards are key in our offense," the coach added. "But we have good size up front and even our younger kids at that position have good size. In fact, all of our kids, ninth to 12th grade, have better than average to decent size and speed everywhere. We've just got to keep working."
Mariakis said the upcoming summer months would be spent working primarily on fine tuning.
"We hit a lot in the spring because you can't hit during the summer," he continued. "This summer will be used for timing on offense and defense, especially with our blitz packages, and working more on the mental game. It will be more of what to do and not necessarily how to do it.
"We've got to get physically and mentally in shape. We had great weather tonight, but it may be near 100 degrees come August and we've got to get ready for that."