PREVIEW: France’s Elite 2015 – Black Panthers de Thonon-les-Bains

This past Saturday, February 7th Elite American football kicked off in France.

This is part of a series of previews to learn more about the top teams of the FFFA, the Fédération Française de Football Américain, and better understand the challenges of this new season.

This preview comes courtesy of VoxStadium and Marion Santiago and has been translated by AFI.

This past weekend the two-time defending champion Thonon-les-bains Black Panthers took their first steps back towards FFFA Elite finals when they defeated the Centurions de Nimes 33 – 20. (full highlights below the preview)

Can the Black Panthers make it a three-peat this season?

Black Panthers de Thonon-les Bains

Ten years ago, the Black Panthers made ​​their return to France’s top Elite championship. Since then, the team of Thonon-les-Bains has never stopped growing, and has now become one of the biggest names in European American football. Benoit Sirouet, co-founder & president of the club acknowledges this progress.

Running Back Stephen Yepmo

“Since 2007, we’ve played in five finals, winning two titles in 2013 and 2014, thanks to learning from our past experiences.”

And if you look deeper, the Black Panthers nearly one their first title in the 2012 season, where they narrowly fell to the Spartiates of Amiens (10-7), a club now playing in France’s second division.

Success story

The Haute-Savoie, the region in which Thonon-les-bains resides, faithful can be satisfied with the progress made ​​so far, proof that rigor, patience and organization, have proved timely.

“Our success is the work of a generation, this particular club that has given players the means to express themselves,” says Sirouet.

The team of Thonon-les-Bains is actually a true role model for development. While American football remains an amateur sport in France, the president of the Black Panthers has convinced the local public authorities and many private sponsors to get involved in the club,

“With our partners, we are one of the teams better endowed financially, which gives us a significant advantage to build a sports project.”

Black Panthers Head Coach Larry Legault

A context that has certainly not been a stranger to the arrival of Larry Legault in Thonon-les-bains. Legault, the head coach of the Black Panthers for ten years now, is a Canadian that has earned a great reputation in the Elite division. Legault has also been head coach of Team France from 2005 and 2014, gleaning in silver medal (2010) and bronze medal (2014) at the last two European American Football Championships. If the club from Thonon-les-bains is led by one of the best coaches in all of France, will be able to take his team to a third consecutive title?

“We will lose some quality in the field”

Benoit Sirouet believes in his clubs even if he fears the consequences of a turbulent offseason.

“Since the 2007 season, there is always the title. Then we just lost a dozen senior players who had fully participated and who have arrived at the age of retirement.”

Black Panthers 2

Thonon’s running game has been dominate in the past

This is a generational cycle that is reminiscent of Flash de la Courneuve. For the past three years the Courneuviens have also suffered from the departure of many key players, forcing the club to redouble it’s efforts on the training of it’s youth. A task that is never easy, especially when operating in an amateur sport where coaches are still so few and far between.

Still, the coaching staff may be the number one strength of the Black Panthers this year. In this wave of departures, the team of Thonon-les-Bains has not lost everything. Among the players who have put down their helmets, some have decided to continue to invest in the club, such as Fabien Ducousso now assistant coach to the offensive line. On the other side of the line, is another former player, Christophe Sirouet, who will help Larry Legault on the defensive line. President of the Black Panthers is pleased by these coaching additions.

“Although we will lose some quality in the field, we will recover much in terms of supervision because for the first time since his arrival in Thonon, Larry Legault will have a substantial staff coaches to help the team manager, and that’s a very important step.”

Transfers & Acquisitions

Sirouet will have a competitive workforce. To make up for the Black Panthers losses, the club has been busy on the transfer market. Starting with the signing of quarterback Billy Greene, a North American import from Canada (University of British Columbia). Greene has European experience as he played with the Swedish club Tyresö Royal Crowns in 2014. Greene will replace Maxime Sprauel, who has decided to take a year off from the gridiron. Sirouet on Greene:

“Following the departure of Maxime, we went for a stranger to fill this important position. We are fortunate to have Billy Greene who is a versatile player, and very intelligent in the game. He will definitely be one of the best quarterbacks in the championship this year.”

Billy Greene 2014 Highlights

In the backfield, Billy Greene will rely on Milton Knox Jr., former athlete of the UCLA Bruins and Fresno State Bulldogs (NCAA D1). Able to play running back, defensive back and return specialist, the American player will certainly strengthen an already solid running game who has been led by Team France running back Stephen Yepmo.

Finally, to fill gaps on the line, the team signed Mateusz Szczek, a Polish colossus at 6’4″ 285 lbs. who will contribute to both the offensive and defensive line.

Milton Knox Jr. Collegiate Highlights

These reinforcements that allow Benoit Sirouet to feel good about going into the start of a new season.

” On paper we have quality players and we can also build on the young people from the junior team as well some French transfers like Alexandre Cara (WR) and Rodrigue Aligenes (DB). So we hope they can take over. Anyway, I’m pretty confident.”

Sirouet might be right to feel confident after the way the Black Panthers handled Nimes last weekend. The Black Panther next test will be on Februrary 22 when they head to Nice to face the Dauphins.

The match will be live stream, so keep you eye on AFI for a full preview and live stream feed!

Black Panthers de Thonon-les-bains  33-20 Centurions de Nimes

Marion Santiago
Journaliste sur @PokerStars Sports Club / Rédactrice Foot US, NBA, Football @VoxStadium
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