It hasn't been difficult for the Linden-McKinley High School football team's coaching staff to find their seniors the past couple months when they haven't been on the practice field.

It hasn't been difficult for the Linden-McKinley High School football team's coaching staff to find their seniors the past couple months when they haven't been on the practice field.

In some fashion, that group has made sure to stay close to each another, whether it's been on a basketball court or at someone's house playing video games.

Figuring out how to best take advantage of a more experienced and tighter group of players has been the biggest focus as the Panthers are seeking their first winning season since going 6-4 in 2001.

"I love these seniors to death," said senior Doug Niece (6-foot, 240 pounds), who will start at offensive tackle and linebacker. "If everybody works together, we can do anything we want."

Linden - which went 3-7 overall and 2-5 in the City League-North Division last year to finish sixth behind champion Brookhaven (7-0) - also hopes to benefit from a shift in its coaching staff as it prepares to open Friday at Massillon Perry.

After Eric Stone led the Panthers to a 7-23 mark the last three seasons as head coach, he is now a volunteer assistant.

Aaron Owens was an assistant last year and now taken over as head coach. Jim Lafferty, who was the defensive coordinator at Whetstone last year but now is teaching at Linden, also has joined the staff.

Owens led Columbus West to an 11-19 mark from 2003-05. He then served as an assistant at Africentric before joining Linden's staff. In 2004 under Owens, the Cowboys went 6-4 for just their second winning season since 1994.

"Our numbers are up a little bit, and we're just trying to work hard," Owens said. "It feels pretty good. It's a challenge to get the kids to the next level, but it's exciting to see the growth. We've got a lot of experience coming back, but you win with numbers."

The Panthers had rosters of 30-35 players in each of Stone's seasons and should have numbers in the high 30s this season.

Senior Donald Anderson (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), a three-time Silver Gloves boxing champion who trains at Blackburn Recreation Center, is expected to start at quarterback. Junior Justin Thomas (6-4, 205) was the starter last year but has moved to wide receiver.

Seniors Anthony Shaw (5-9, 160) Shawn Gatewood (5-10, 190) and Michael Cardwell (5-11, 190) are expected share time at running back.
Junior Stanley Barlow (5-11, 160) should join Thomas at wide receiver.

Niece, seniors Phil Rippy (6-2, 240), Derrick Bush (6-0, 200) and Raymond Jones (6-2, 200), Zachary Eiland (6-0, 240) and sophomore Quenyon McLaurin (6-0, 270) should lead an offensive line that has more overall bulk than a year ago.

Rippy is the brother of Doug Rippy, who played for Linden from 2005-07 before graduating from Trotwood-Madison. He is a redshirt freshman at Colorado.

Defensively, the Panthers gave up an average of 37 points last year.

Jones, Rippy and McLaurin will be on the defensive line in what should be a 4-3 or 5-2 front. Junior Tyrone Lindsey (6-4, 230) will split time between end and linebacker.

Niece, Gatewood and senior DeShawn Fentress-Ransom all will be at linebacker, with Shaw and Anderson at cornerback, Thomas at free safety and Cardwell at strong safety.

Among Linden's non-league opponents, Massillon Perry and Whitehall (Sept. 4 away) are new to the schedule. Perry went 4-6 a year ago, and Whitehall was 0-10.

The Panthers remain in Division III after finishing 21st in Region 12 last year.

"I love how (the offense) has been coming along," Owens said. "I've been the offensive coordinator for four or five years when I was at West and Africentric, and the kids have been picking up on what we've been teaching, which is real satisfying. Our experience and coaching should be improved this year."