By Beau Wicker and Josh Sigler CNHI
---- — Pioneer’s sectional win over Carroll last week could be a good barometer of how far the Panthers have come since the start of the season.
The Panthers are hoping that improvement shows through with a sectional championship tonight.
The Class A No. 9 Panthers (9-2) travel to Frontier (3-8) for the Sectional 42 championship.
A year ago a more veteran Panthers squad had to fight tooth and nail after a slow start in a 35-21 sectional win over Carroll. Last week the young Panthers handed the Cougars a 41-6 defeat with many of those same Carroll players on the field.
While the Panthers have maintained a high-scoring offense throughout their current nine-game win streak, it’s been their defense that has stepped up of late and has returned them to their dominating ways on the gridiron.
“Defensively we have gotten better the last two and a half ballgames,” Pioneer coach Mike Johnson said. “We gave up 30 points in the first half to West Central and only gave up a touchdown in the second half. We gave up a touchdown against Seeger and a touchdown against Carroll. Hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come for us on defense.”
The Cougars had been playing their best football of the season before running into the red-hot Panthers. Carroll had its starting quarterback back in Jared Miller and No. 1 receiver Brandon Dillon was able to move back to his more natural position.
“We needed to know where [Dillon] was at on the field. He’s a big target and a great athlete,” Johnson said. “Hats off to our defensive coordinator [John Bingaman]. We had a couple different coverages we played against [Dillon] and I certainly think it worked.
“We were concerned going in about their power running game. For the most part we did a good job of stopping that. We knew they could throw the ball downfield and get big completions and we limited them in that aspect.”
The Panthers were also able to overcome Carroll’s size advantage.
“They were huge. They outmanned us at every spot on the field,” Johnson said. “I’m happy with the way we played offensively and defensively to combat some of their size. It was a good win for us last week.”
The Panthers are facing a Frontier team that has also made big strides throughout the season, Johnson said.
In sectional play Frontier avenged a 2-point loss to South Newton with a 38-12 win and then last week avenged a 7-point loss to Caston with a 27-0 win.
“They’re a lot different ballclub certainly from the beginning of the season and when we played them. They’re a very good team,” Johnson said. “They’re on a roll right now. It’s at their place. It’s a difficult challenge for us.”
In the regular-season game Frontier was within 16-7 of Pioneer at halftime on Sept. 27. The Panthers pulled away in the second half for a 47-13 win.
The next week the Falcons snapped a 34-game losing streak with a 40-16 win over West Central.
The Falcons have shown improved play of late despite being without leading rusher Hunter McCracken, who’s been out with a knee injury. Johnson said he is unsure of his status for tonight.
Justin Mersch has rushed for 1,636 yards and 26 touchdowns to lead the Panthers. Sam Kiser has rushed for 998 yards and 18 TDs and passed for 405 yards and 5 TDs. J.P. Smith adds 527 yards rushing and 8 TDs. Tyler Hanna leads the defense with 33 solo tackles and 27 assists.
Tipton (8-3) at Delphi (6-5)
Tipton’s football program has a long-standing tradition where, following a win the previous Friday, at Thursday pregame walkthroughs it places a tombstone in the ground with the defeated team’s name on it.
It’s know as “Burying ‘em at The Rock.” The Blue Devils put 25 years worth of frustration to the grave last Friday night in a 28-24 come-from behind triumph over No. 2-ranked Lafayette Central Catholic in Class 2A sectional semifinal action.
The win snapped an 11-game tournament losing streak to parochial schools, dating back to the 1988 semistate, when the Blue Devils defeated Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger 18-16.
But, as euphoric and gratifying as the victory was, coach Aaron Tolle knows the truly meaningful games begin this week, when No. 7 Tipton (8-3) travels to Delphi seeking its fourth straight sectional title.
“It was a very emotional game, and I think that’s one of our big challenges this week,” Tolle said. “We have to get our kids’ heads out the clouds and make them understand that while last week’s game was big, this one is even bigger.
“In tournament play, all you want to do is survive to play the next week,” he continued. “If you can survive, that next week’s game becomes even bigger. We’ve tried to make our kids understand that as big as last week’s win was, they don’t present a trophy for [winning] Round 2. We’ve tried to get across to our kids that every game from here on in has a trophy at stake.”
Delphi (6-5) is a squad Tipton knows well. As Hoosier Conference foes, the Blue Devils have defeated the Oracles 14 straight times dating back to 2001, including a 38-0 win in Delphi in Week 9 of this season on Oct. 18.
Delphi defeated Benton Central (1-9) 21-7 and Southmont (4-7) 40-21 to reach the sectional final round. The Oracles are seeking their first sectional title since 1977.
“It’s scary because I’ve always said it’s extremely tough to beat an opponent twice in one season,” Tolle said. “Now we’re trying to beat an opponent twice in one month. They’ve won two games in a row and I’m sure they’re much more confident than they were three weeks ago. They have reason to be. We have to continue to play at a really high level.”
Senior Garrett Johnson leads Delphi on both sides of the ball. At running back, he enters with 236 carries for 1,172 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s the team’s leading tackler as well, with 76 tackles and six interceptions from his defensive back position.
“He carried the ball 30 times for 190 yards last week,” Tolle said. “The first thing that jumps off the page to me is we have to stop him. We were lucky enough to do that the first time. Because were able to do that, it probably swung the score in our direction maybe more so than it could’ve been. The thing that scares me is if we can’t contain him, that’ll allow them to play ball control and keep the ball away from us. That shortens the game, and then the game gets a lot closer. And at that point, anything can happen in tournament play.”
Senior quarterback Austin Hooker leads the Blue Devils’ offense, completing 64 of 118 passes for 984 yards and nine TDs this season in seven games of action. He missed four games with a broken arm early in the season. The southpaw has also rushed for 394 yards and nine TDs on 72 carries. Tailback Nate Hein has added 175 carries for 1,040 yards and seven TDs. Senior wideouts Jake Devendorf (33 catches, 458 yards four TDs) and Nate Friend (23, 341, three) have been Hooker’s favorite targets.