LENA, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF) — When a football team returns only three starters on offense and only one starter on defense, that’s usually a big problem, but not in this case because that team is Lena-Winslow.

That’s right, the Panthers, winners of the last three state championships in Class 1A, have only four returning starters. They graduated three all-conference offensive linemen. They graduated the NUIC’s leading rusher and another running back who topped 1,000 yards. They also lost their quarterback and a defensive lineman who’s now with the Fighting Illini, but no one is losing any sleep in Panther country, because they know what they do have.

“The group of seniors is a good group. We’ve got 16 seniors which is, you know, even for us a pretty large number,” said head coach Ric Arand.

Because of those five extra playoff games the Panthers had last year, and because the Panthers were involved in so many blowouts, a lot of these guys did get a fair amount of varsity experience last year when the starters were pulled.

“We have a lot of experience back in terms of a lot of guys played a lot of crucial minutes and a lot of games,” said Arand.

“Yea, there are a lot of starters gone, but at the end of the day there’s kids here that they got a lot of reps last year,” said returning two-way lineman Odin Stabenow. “They’re a lot more experienced than a lot of the kids that would be stepping up and would be doing at other places I feel.”

These Panthers, like the others before them, have spent a lot of time in the weight room.

“Everybody always showed up to the weight room. I don’t think there was a week where a kid didn’t show up,” said Stabenow.

Setting the tone on the field for the Panthers will be one of the best 1A players in the state in senior running back/linebacker Gage Dunker. All he did last year was rush for more than 1400 yards, and he led the NUIC with 28 touchdowns. Dunker also led the Panthers in tackles. So, what has he worked on to get better?

“Definitely my footwork for a running back, and then last year I only played linebacker really in the playoffs, so I wasn’t really too good at it, or as well as I should have played, but I have been working on my linebacker a lot.”

Dunker will be the power back on offense this year. Senior Nick Tippett will be the speed back. Blake Duncan will be another running back. He’s just getting back to normal after going through an ACL injury 18 months ago. Lucas Fye and Cobryn Lynch will also get carries.

The Panthers will still have the advantage on most teams up front, especially with Stabenow and Tanner Kempel playing on the right side of the line at tackle and guard. Both earned all-conference honors last year. Luke Kempel is ready to go at center.

Senior Jake Schumacher is the new starting quarterback. Most of these guys on offense will also flip over and play defense.

For some players at other schools it could be intimidating for them trying to follow in the footsteps of so many great players who have come before them. Arand says these Lena-Winslow kids embrace trying to uphold the great tradition here.

“The success we’ve had here the last few years, this group of kids really don’t know any different. This group of seniors coming in, they’ve seen that throughout the years, and they know that it’s their turn. They’re the next guy up.”