by Rick Conrad
For the Pharos-Tribune
ROYAL CENTER —
A very tough, hard hitting North Judson team entered Royal Center with plans of knocking off the reigning MWC champs, but the Pioneer Panthers were up to the challenge.
With a team that keeps improving from week to week the Panthers scored an impressive win over a good Bluejays squad, 42-20.
The Panther defense showed from the outset they were there to battle as they held North Judson and standout fullback Eric Beckman to a three-and-out on their first possession of the game.
After a Bluejay punt the Pioneer offense went to work and put together a nine-play drive ending with Justin Mersch running it in from 10 yards out at the 5:40 mark. The conversion failed and Pioneer claimed an early 6-0 lead.
North Judson answered on the next series when Mavrick Pitts broke free from 36 yards and the Bluejays took the lead at 7-6 with 3:22 left in the first.
Following a Pioneer fumble the Bluejays showed their quick-strike capabilities when on the first play of the series quarterback Caston Sanchez found Tyler Tunis for a 45-yard TD pass with 2:36 left and the Bluejays went up 13-6 over the Panthers after one complete.
The Panthers took a 14-13 lead over North Judson at the 10:47 mark of the second when JP.. Smith found paydirt from 12 yards out. The conversion run by Sam Kiser was good and Pioneer would never trail from there.
On the next Bluejays possession they found themselves in a fourth-and-3 situation on their own 36. Electing to punt the ball away the Panthers Deven Smith broke through for the block and Austin Sparks quickly recovered on the 29 setting Pioneer up for another score. It took Pioneer five plays to punch it in when QB Kiser kept it and carried it in from 5 yards out. The conversion run by Mersch was good and Pioneer took a 22-13 lead into the break.
The Panthers received the second half kickoff and Smith returned it to the Bluejay 42 before being ran out of bounds. Nine plays later at the 6:58 mark Mersch found the end zone again, this time from 9 yards out to extend the Panther lead to 28-13.
Pioneer was then fed a steady dose Beckman. The Bluejays took just five plays to cover 66 yards with the big fullback picking up 65 of them himself on four carries. His final carry was a 3-yard blast up the middle for the score and North Judson was back in it 28-20.
Then disaster struck for the Bluejays. With 4:18 left in the third quarter Mersch had just picked up 6 yards on the Panthers’ first play of the series. The pile quickly unraveled and Beckman was down in obvious pain with an apparent serious injury to his right leg. While paramedics attended to the senior an ambulance arrived and eventually transported him to the hospital.
When play resumed the Bluejay defense was an inspired group but Pioneer continued marching the ball. On the first play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter Kiser found Caleb Kindley alone in the end zone for a 15-yard pass for the score with 11:53 left in the game to give the Panthers a 34-20 lead.
Without Beckman in the backfield the Bluejay offense appeared to have had a letdown. Unable to move the ball on their next series they faced a fourth-and-4 from the 44. Their pass attempt was incomplete and North Judson turned the ball back over to Pioneer.
It took the Panthers just nine plays to cover the 44 yards before Mersch took it in from the 2 with 4:19 to go for his third score of the night. The conversion by Tyler Hanna was good to make it 42-20 Pioneer.
“They have some quality backs on their football team and following the horrible accident with Beckman they had to refocus and regroup and I thought they did,” Pioneer coach Mike Johnson said. “Coming in we thought they were really going to work our defense and we knew we were going to have to bring down their powerful backs. It’s just unfortunate that he [Beckman] suffered that gruesome injury. We certainly wish him the best and hope for a full recovery for that young man.
“I thought overall our guys played a nice game on the defensive side of the ball.”
The Panther offense did pretty good, too, on the night as they rushed the ball 58 times for 305 yards in the game. Mersch led the way with 33 carries for 183 yards. Kiser picked up 63 yards on 15 carries while Smith picked up 32 yards on seven attempts. Smith had two receptions for 28 yards while Kindley also had two catches for 27 yards.
“Our offensive line did a much better job of blocking tonight and that lets us do a lot more things on offense,” Kiser said. “We knew they were going to be a physical team and we knew that we were going to have to equal them.”