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Fort Zumwalt North at Battle Football - Class 5 State Quarterfinals

Fort Zumwalt North's Cairo Payne (8) carries the ball against Battle during the Class 5 state quarterfinals at Battle High School in Columbia, Mo., on Nov. 16, 2018. Michael Gulledge, Special to

O'FALLON, MO. — Gavin Stricker dreams about pancakes.

Not the butter and syrup kind, the knock you on your butt kind.

The senior left tackle for the Fort Zumwalt North football team, Stricker has come up through the Panthers' feeder program battling in the trenches. A three-year varsity stalwart, Stricker knows what he's supposed to do in every situation like it's second nature. And if that results in defenders flat on their back, then all the better.

“Starting young really helps. I can do this stuff in my sleep,” Stricker said. “It gets branded on you and it's there. I have dreams about it. You love it.”

There's a lot for the Panthers to love about this season. They return all five starting linemen to an offense that is powered by a relentless rushing attack. Fort Zumwalt North is the No. 6 large school in the preseason rankings.

Stricker (6-foot-2, 245 pound) will be at left tackle, joined by Adam Lewis (6-2, 260) at right tackle. Gavin LaBell (6-2, 255) is the left guard and Joey Martin (6-0, 225) is the right guard. All are seniors with center Nate Rapplean (5-11, 240) the only junior.

On top of five returning starters, there are experienced reserves ready to jump in when called upon. It's a luxury the Panthers are not accustomed to having and one coach Joe Bacon thinks will pay dividends in multiple ways.

“We never have depth at O-line, ever. This year we finally do so it's pretty exciting,” Bacon said. “Having guys that are good enough to beat (the starters) out, that competition is huge. When you know your backup is almost as good as you, that's a pretty good incentive to keep grinding hard.”

Fort Zumwalt North knows no other way. The Panthers have won five consecutive district championships to give them five consecutive Class 5 quarterfinal appearances. Twice in the last three years they went to the semifinals and were the runners up in 2016.

The seniors on this team were freshmen when Fort Zumwalt North made its championship game debut. They didn't get to do much on the field but understand how much work it takes to reach such great heights.

“If nothing else they know that it's possible,” Bacon said. “They know another team from this school has been here so it makes it more realistic for them.”

The offense returns its line but there has been a shake up at the skill positions. Senior Cairo Payne (5-11, 170) spent his sophomore and junior seasons as a slot receiver but came up through the feeder program as a quarterback. Electric in open space, Payne had 963 combined rushing and receiving yards and scored 14 total touchdowns. He averaged more than 13 yards per touch and now he'll touch the ball on every play.

“We had great quarterbacks already and he was too good of a guy to have him watching as a backup,” Bacon said. “We had to get him on the field somewhere else. He's always been a solid quarterback.”

Payne said it took a bit to get back into the rhythms of the position, but it didn't take long for him to feel comfortable at his old spot.

“It took a little bit of time. Last time I played it was freshman year,” Payne said. “Once I got the flow of it, it was there. It was always there.”

The defense lost some serious playmakers, including linebacker Jaylin Vaughn, who had 115 tackles and was a safety net if something went astray. With Vaughn gone, so is the safety net, but the Panthers believe they'll be stronger across the board than they were last season.

“He was good and we loved having him but we're working with what we got. I feel confident in who we have now,” senior linebacker Max Martin said. “We've got some speed. We have some new guys and we've been working all summer, so we'll see how it goes.”

Martin (6-3, 225) had 107 tackles and four sacks to lead the returning Panthers. Payne will be in the secondary where he had 62 tackles and three interceptions.

“We've got some real good speed this year. This group is pretty grimy,” Bacon said. “They feel like they have a lot to prove. They're pretty hungry.”

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