Saturday, August 25, 2007
Ryan Panapa didn't take long to make an impression on St. Bonaventure High football coach Todd Therrien — in a practice, or a game.
The practice was during Panapa's freshman year, when the linebacker was brought up to the varsity for the playoffs.
"We run a screen at him," recalls Therrien, who steps into St. Bonaventure's head coaching job this year while remaining defensive coordinator. "The offense gains about 15 yards. So we coach him up, and they try to run that screen again. He kills it.
"He is one of those guys — you're not going to get him twice."
Sometimes, you're not even going to get him once. That was illustrated in his varsity debut the following year, when the Seraphs opened the season against Burroughs of Ridgecrest.
On the second play of the game, Therrien says, "They run a blast toward him. He goes through the fullback and lifts the tailback up. The tailback's helmet ended up sideways. We just said, Hey, you know what? That guy's pretty danged good.' "
The assessment has proved to be more than accurate. As he enters his senior season, the 6-foot-2, 256-pound Panapa comes into the season as a captain, a mentor and an undeniable force on the field. He led the Seraphs a year ago with 98 tackles, after collecting 70 — fourth on the team — as a sophomore.
As his impact has grown, so has his stature as a team leader, according to Therrien.
"Phenomenal leader," says Therrien. "In the first couple years, it was by his play. Now he's a vocal leader as well.
"We don't really tell guys to get vocal. It started with Cory Finnerty (a Seraphs linebacker now at Navy). He was a very quiet player, and then his senior year, he stepped up and was a vocal leader. Ryan's done the same thing. He knows it's his time, his year, and he's stepped up and is leading now."
For Panapa, leadership means thinking of the team first — and not just this year's team.
"I've stopped with personal goals," he says. "I just mainly want to help out all the younger guys now, so they can continue all the tradition and become better than this team."
In that, he both honors past teammates and fulfills the desire and design of his head coach.
"When I was a sophomore, I had Dwight Roberson (that season's tackle leader) and he helped me a lot," says Panapa. "I just want to pass it on to these younger guys, who actually are really good — Dylan Davis, Brent Maddox and Art Galbreath."
This is exactly what Therrien wants.
"When we get a guy like that, he knows what he's got to do," says the coach. "So his reps (repetitions in practice) get cut, and he becomes more of a coach, because we've got to get someone to replace him for next year.
"Not only does he rep himself, but he starts coaching up the other guys. And they say you retain 95 percent of what you teach."
Early in his football career, Panapa was a quarterback and running back. But as he grew, his father suggested he move to linebacker. After some initial resistance, he grew to love the position, for one very good reason: "We get to hit," he says. "That's the main thing I like. At running back, you hit or mostly get hit, but at linebacker, you get to hit. It's just fun."
(Not surprisingly, this is why — even though he recognizes its value in terms of learning and perfecting coverages — he's not fond of the summer 7-on-7 season: "We can't hit," he says. "All we can do is tag.")
Loving it and doing it well isn't always the same thing, but as illustrated by the early impression Panapa made on his coach, they are in this case. Beyond that, Therrien says, he's also smart about the game. He's been in charge of calling defensive signals — relaying Therrien's calls to the other players — since his sophomore year.
"I had two seniors doing it," says Therrien. "We had some mess-ups, so Ryan took it over and he's been doing it ever since. He's a student of the game."
That would seem to be confirmed by the degree to which Panapa has come to be in sync with his coach's calls.
"When I walk up to the huddle," Panapa says, "I'll be telling a friend, We should run this,' just based on what I've learned from Coach T. And then we end up running it."
With the help of a player like Panapa, whatever the defense is running, it's usually going to be run well.