VALIER — When Eric Watson stepped down as the head football coach at Valier earlier this summer, it left the Panthers scrambling to find a replacement with little time before the season started.
The found an experienced mentor in the nick of time. Ross Drishinski took the job three weeks ago after eight years as the head football coach at Heart Butte and immediately hit the ground running.
“I was up at Heart Butte for eight years as coach up there and so I understand the Northern Conference,” Drishinski said. “Overall it’s always been such a tough league. But the transition has been great. Kids are kids. You just got to focus on them, train them right and get ready to go.”
Drishinski had planned to take the year off from coaching to focus on his campaign for Pondera County Sherriff, but couldn’t turn down the chance to lead the Panthers when the school approached him.
After back-to-back titles in the 6-Man North, the Panthers enter this season in an unfamiliar position. In addition to the loss of Watson, Valier lost six all-state starters that led the Panthers to two straight appearances in the 6-Man semifinals. Gone are stars like Colten Curry, now with the Montana Grizzlies, and Trever VandenBos, now at Montana Tech.
Of the 13 kids who came out for fall camp, few have varsity playing experience.
“Having lost such a large group, a lot of the kids didn’t start last year and didn’t get all that playing time,” said Drishinski. “So we’re still trying to find the identity of who our starters are going to be and who our leaders are going to be.”
But if you think the Panthers are preparing for a rebuilding year, think again. Seniors RJ Weikum, Matt Connelly and Spencer Briggs will join junior Brett Monroe and sophomore Brock Barcus in leading the team.
“We’re going to have to work harder, there’s not as many people,” said Connelly, a running back. “But Panther football isn’t gone. We’re going to keep it around. That big class graduated, but other than that we still have the speed, guys have lots of power. We’re a pretty agile team. We have the people and the drive; it’s just showing up and proving it.”
Getting to the top is hard, but staying at the top is even harder, especially with so many new faces. But the Panthers are used to success and maintain high expectations.
“Definitely, I don’t want to give up that position,” Weikum said. “I want to work as hard as I have my whole four years and hopefully get these guys to work just as hard as everyone else.”
And Drishinski is pleased with what he’s seen in just a short time on the job.
“These kids back here have oodles of talent,” he said. “They just have to realize that themselves and let the other teams realize that they have that talent. I’ve watched them: They’re athletic and they have the skills. They just have to have the heart and to believe in themselves that they can play with anybody.”
Valier opens the season Aug. 24 at Power-Dutton-Brady.