Newberry continued its streak of qualifying for the playoffs in 2022, advancing to the postseason for the fourth straight year.
Unfortunately, the Panthers have been bounced in the first round of the postseason each of those years.
Last year, a young Newberry team, led by freshman quarterback Keil McGriff and freshman running back Kaleb Woods, finished 6-4, but were knocked off 49-7 at Chiefland in the Region 4-1A semifinal.
"Last year was a lot of growing pains," Newberry coach Ed Johnson said. "We were very, very young but we got better as the year went on. We have to close the gap because our four losses were not close games. We have to get better and close the gap against those good teams."
Woods impressive freshman season included 868 yards and nine TD's on the ground while averaging 7.7 yards per carry. Woods added another 11 catches for 112 yards and a score as well.
McGriff was the team's second leading rusher, running for 250 yards at 6.9 yards a carry while throwing for 2,055 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air while averaging just over 205 yards passing per game.
"Our quarterback has a year under his belt and our running back has a year under his belt. We have also improved up front on the offensive line so it should be a good year."
The Panthers do lose their top receiver from a year ago in Mike Moore, who had 57 catches for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. But their second leading receiver from 2022 returns in senior David Schmidt. Schmidt caught 36 balls for 632 yards and five touchdowns a year ago while averaging almost 18 yards per catch.
While the returning offensive weapons are impressive, Johnson sees a team where the defense will lead the way.
"Defensively our front seven should be really strong for us," Johnson said. "If we play really good defense, we will win a lot of games this year.
Newberry's defense was up-and-down in 2022, allowing 42 points or more in their four losses to playoff teams Union County, Williston, South Sumter, and Chiefland.
"Jonathan Powers is a player to watch," Johnson said. "He's our middle linebacker and captain on defense and we expect him to have a big year. Jarquez Carter is another player to watch, and we expect him to have a big year as well."
Powers is a senior this fall and is coming off a junior season where he led the Panthers in tackles with 87 and also had six tackles for loss.
Carter put up huge numbers a sophomore a year ago, amassing 78 tackles including a team-high 23 tackles for loss and also was third in sacks with 10.
Junior defense ends Logan McCloud and Mykah Newton combined for 32 sacks in 2022 as McCloud led Newberry with 18 sacks and Newton contributed 14. McCloud added 76 tackles including 17 for loss with Newton adding 58 stops with 15 for loss.
Outside linebacker Wyatt Hester also returns for his senior year after a junior season which saw him compile 87 tackles and 13 tackles for loss.
Johnson says this has been a good offseason and summer for his Newberry squad.
"Offseason has been great, numbers are high," Johnson said. "The kids are in there working hard and I'm excited because they are taking accountability for this upcoming season."
To make the playoffs for a fifth straight year, Newberry will once again have to navigate a tough and challenging schedule. The Panthers play four straight playoff teams from Sept. 15 to Oct. 13 with home games against Clearwater Calvary Christian, Williston, and Chiefland, and a road game at Citizens Field against Eastside.
But the game that is circled is Sept. 1 against defending 1R state champion Hawthorne.
"We have Hawthorne, Chiefland, Williston on the schedule," Johnson added. "We have some major tests and also get Hawthorne at home in week 2. We look forward to the challenge of playing our rival Hawthorne, and their program has had plenty of success recently."