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Photo Credit: Steve Bubalo/PrepsKC

The 2016 season was a difficult one for Oak Grove running back Kenton Wilhoit. The senior sat on the sideline for almost half of the season with an injury, as the Panthers finished just 5-6.

So it’s no surprise that Wilhoit was more than ready to get back on the field Friday night when the Panthers opened the season at home against Richmond, and he didn’t disappoint. He finished with 29 carries for 243 yards and two scores, as Oak Grove rolled to a 31-14 win.

“It feels good,” Wilhoit said about being back on the field. “I’m back at full strength and I feel good.”

Oak Grove head coach Pat Richard got several players involved in the running game in the first half and it led to a 15-7 lead. But right out of the gates in the second half, it was almost all Wilhoit. After he got 13 carries in the first half, he got 13 in the third quarter alone, including touching the ball on 11 of the first 13 plays of the third quarter.

Both drives ended with him finding the end zone, as the Panthers opened up a 28-14 lead.

“We mixed things up pretty well in the first half, and at halftime he said he wanted the ball and the offensive line said they wanted him to have the ball,” Richard said.

That offensive line looks a lot different then it did last season with four first-time starters. Richard praised the lone returning starter Luke Edwards, saying “he had a heck of a game,” while also feeling positive about the new guys.

“The rest of the guys, they’re learning as they go,” Richard said. “We learned a lot tonight and watched them develop.”

Added Wilhoit, “All of my success I owe to the line. I’m very excited to see them grow. They’re such hard workers and dedicated. They have the desire to get better.”

Richmond head coach Rob Bowers is going through a similar transition with his offensive line, as they lost all five starters from last year’s 11-1 team, which led him to do something he’s never done.

“We started two freshmen on the offensive line,” Bowers said. “In 34 years of coaching I’ve never started a freshmen on the O-line. They’re going to be good, they’ll get better, but they’re freshmen. They’re 14-year-old kids playing against juniors and seniors. It’s tough for them.”

The Spartans had trouble moving the ball all game long. Senior standout Trevon Alexander provided the offensive fireworks with a 76-yard touchdown run and a 95-yard kickoff return for a score. Other than that, it was a struggle for the offense.

Despite their struggles, the Spartans had two opportunities deep in Panther territory - one in each half - but came away empty both times.

“Both times we got in their territory we self-destructed,” Bowers said. “We had the fumble (the first time) and then the two bad snaps. We’ve got to take advantage of those. We still have some things to build on.”

The first half saw the Panthers open up a 15-0 lead thanks to a pair of rushing touchdowns from quarterback Jackson Althaus, as well as a safety. The first touchdown came from 3 yards out, while the second was a 28-yard score.

Althaus also helped set up that second score, as he ran for 27 yards on a fake punt on fourth-and-10 from the Panthers own 42-yard line. As he received the snap, he nearly kicked it away before seeing some room to run.

“He has the option (to run),” Richard said. “And we talked about that this week. If there’s no pressure and he sees an alley he can go. Especially with the field position we had at the time, it was worth a shot.”

And it made for a solid start to the season for the Panthers, as they look to bounce back from a disappointing 2016.

“I know people are underestimating us because of our record last year,” Wilhoit said. “We’ve been talking all summer about not letting that happen again. We definitely have a chip on our shoulder.”

The Panthers will travel to Jefferson City to face Blair Oaks next Friday, while Richmond will host Northeast.