By Beau Wicker
---- — In many ways Pioneer’s and Carroll’s football teams mirror each other this season.
Both teams rely on a number of underclassmen and both got off to a rocky start to the year. But both have gotten things going at the right time heading into tonight’s Class A sectional game in Flora.
The Cougars (6-4) host the No. 9-ranked Panthers (8-2) at 7 o’clock tonight in a Sectional 42 semifinal.
“It’s a big game,” Pioneer coach Mike Johnson said. “They’re a big team. They’re certainly a lot bigger than us. They’ve played well of late. Their last 5 of 6 have been wins. They’ve gotten better and better and they’ve gotten healthy and gotten guys back.”
The Panthers have won eight games in a row on the strength of an offense that has scored 44.8 points per game this season. While the defense has allowed 25.2 ppg, the Panthers are coming off a game last week in which they throttled Seeger 59-6.
“Our defense has to show up against these guys, there’s no doubt,” Johnson said. “They can throw the ball and throw the ball down the field and they’re good in that area as well. We have to play good defense.”
Junior fullback Justin Mersch has rushed for 1,514 yards and 25 touchdowns and has averaged 7.6 yards per carry for the Panthers. Sophomore quarterback Sam Kiser has passed for 437 yards and 5 TDs and rushed for an additional 869 yards and 15 TDs. J.P. Smith adds 516 yards rushing and 8 TDs. Tyler Hanna leads the defense with 30 solo tackles, 27 assists and 5.5 tackles for a loss.
“The Kiser kid is unreal,” Carroll coach Steve Keown said. “The Smith kid, the Mersch kid, those guys are tough. They have good linemen. Mike’s always got guys that can block well. And they’ve been running the wing-T since they were third graders and they really know it and that’s a challenge.”
The Cougars have gotten healthy at the right time of the season. They got a big boost when junior quarterback Jared Miller returned from a stress fracture that sidelined him the first seven weeks. Miller’s return meant that standout junior wide receiver Brandon Dillon could move back to his more natural spot on the field.
“When [Miller] went down, not only did we lose our quarterback be lost our No. 1 receiver because he had to go under center,” Keown said. “One of the nice things about getting Jared back is now Brandon can get back to where he’s comfortable. Last week he had 125 receiving yards and shown what he can do for us. It gets people out of the box. The teams we played the last few weeks, everybody had their nose in the box.”
Keown noted that in the 3.5 games Miller has played this year he’s thrown for over 500 yards. Miller missed most of last year with an injury as well.
“He’s had two of the freakiest injuries I’ve ever come across. Honestly it’s a testament to his toughness that he’s back for us,” Keown said. “He could easily have been a 1,200-, 1,500-yard passer this year. I truly believe that. He’s special throwing the ball.”
The Cougars are coming off of back-to-back wins at North White the last two weeks, 26-6 and 40-22.
“We’re as healthy as we’ve been right now. We’re playing some of our better football. I don’t know if it’s good enough but we’re playing some of our best football all season,” Keown said.
Jaden Reneau leads the Cougars on the ground with 1,223 yards and 11 TDs.
Last year the Cougars gave the Panthers a scare in a sectional game, leading 14-0 at halftime in a semifinal game in Flora. But Joey Miller rushed for 187 yards and five touchdowns on 21 carries in the second half to lead the Panthers to a 35-21 win.
“I think in the first half we could do nothing right,” Johnson said. “We fumbled and turned it over and didn’t execute. They had a blocked punt. We can’t have that this year. We don’t want a bad start like that again.”
Keown noted the Panthers were a veteran team a year ago but this year the teams are similar experience-wise.
“Last year they were senior-laden and we had a bunch of sophomores,” he said. “We’re not the most veteran team you can find.”
The winner plays the Caston-Frontier winner in next week’s final.
Frontier (2-8) at Caston (3-7)
It’s another rematch from Midwest Conference play for the Comets.
Last week they put together one of their best performances of the season in a 48-14 romp against Tri-County. They avenged a one-point loss one week earlier.
Tonight they’re facing a Frontier team in which they knocked off 21-14 in Week 3.
“We’re going to have to play with some intensity. The shoe’s on the other foot for this one,” Caston coach Chris Ulerick said. “We reminded our guys in practice that we were behind for 7/8s of that game, and it was probably more like 15/16s. We were ahead for about a minute and a half that last time. We got a goal-line stand and a 95-yard drive for a score to go ahead. We were behind about the whole game but the team found a way to win.”
Ulerick was especially impressed with his squad’s defensive effort last week against Tri-County after struggling to stop the Cavaliers the week before.
“I’m certainly proud of the way the kids played defense. For the first time this season I could say I was proud of how we played defensively,” he said. “We found a way to win. A couple other games this season I wasn’t real happy with the effort we played with. It was the first all-around game where we had offensive output and shut down a team defensively. The most important part was shutting a team down defensively.”
After the Caston game the Falcons looked down and out until they walloped West Central 40-16 in Week 7. The Trojans entered that game ranked in the top 10 in Class A, but the Falcons were able to snap their 34-game losing streak against them.
The Falcons avenged a 2-point loss to South Newton in Week 2 with a 38-12 thumping last week over the Rebels to open sectional play.
“They’ve got the right kids in the right spots. Their coaching staff has done a really good job of getting them to play hard,” Ulerick said. “It’s not like past years where you could just show up and beat Frontier. We’ll have to work our tails off in order to beat these guys, especially the second time around.”
Quentin Douglass is coming off his school record breaking five touchdown game against Tri-County. The Caston senior quarterback has passed for 794 yards and 9 TDs and rushed for 721 yards and 8 TDs to lead the Comets. Conner Martin adds 491 yards rushing and 8 TDs. Jake Kingery leads the defense with 70 tackles and 11.5 tackles for a loss. Brayton Jellison has a team-best five interceptions.