by Beau Wicker
Pioneer’s sectional championship run was very Pioneer-like.
The Panthers’ domination of Sectional 42 concluded with a 32-0 shellacking of Frontier on Friday night in the final.
The Panthers won their sixth sectional title in program history and first in five years.
“First sectional title since 2008, that’s something special for us seniors,” left tackle A.J. Beckley said. “We practice hard all week. That’s what we do. Coach Johnson prepares us every week. He’s hard on us and it pays off in the long run.”
Running back/linebacker Tyler Hanna added, “It feels amazing. We haven’t won one in years. I’m just proud of everybody on our team.”
Pioneer outscored its three sectional opponents, Seeger, Carroll and Frontier, by a combined score of 132-12.
“We really came together as a team from the beginning of the season,” safety Kamrin Buell said. “We’re never underprepared. We’re always going to go all out every game.”
The victory sets up a regional showdown next Friday when Class A No. 9 Pioneer (10-2) hosts No. 3 Winamac (12-0) at the Pit.
The Falcons (3-8) put up a good fight on their home field and made the Panthers earn the championship.
But Pioneer was simply too much on this night.
Sophomore quarterback Sam Kiser scored the first of his three touchdowns midway through the first quarter on a 6-yard TD run on a fourth-and-1 play. Junior fullback Justin Mersch earlier converted a fourth-and-1 in Pioneer territory with a 3-yard run. The drive also included a 27-yard run by Hanna on a play where he fumbled but a Pioneer player was able to recover.
On the Panthers’ second drive Kiser found Caleb Kindley open in the end zone for a 20-yard TD pass to make it a 12-0 game early in the second quarter. Earlier in the drive Kiser converted a fake punt on fourth-and-1 with a 4-yard run. He later converted a fourth-and-7 play with a 17-yard pass to J.P. Smith.
Kiser scored from 8 yards out with 57 seconds left in the first half. Mersch’s 2-point conversion run made it 20-0. The Panthers again converted a fourth-and-1 play earlier in the drive on a 6-yard run by Mersch.
The Panthers thoroughly dominated the half. They scored on a pair of 12-play, 65-yard drives and a 12-play, 78-yard drive. At the same time their defense held the Falcons to 17 yards including just 1 yard on the ground on 10 attempts.
Kiser added his third score of the game on a 1-yard QB sneak early in the fourth quarter to make it 26-0. The Panthers were again methodical during a 12-play, 68-yard drive.
Hanna capped the scoring with a 13-yard TD run with 6:31 left in the game. The score was set up by a Smith interception on a tipped pass that included a 55-yard return.
Mersch was the main workhorse on the night for the Panthers with 142 yards rushing on 27 carries. Kiser finished with 69 yards rushing and was 3-of-3 passing for 47 yards. Hanna added 57 yards on the ground.
As good as Pioneer’s offense was during the game, the defense was arguably even better. The Panthers held the Falcons to just 62 yards of offense including 36 yards rushing on 26 attempts.
“Our defense really showed up,” Beckley said. “We practiced hard all week and we wanted to stop them. That’s what we did tonight. It was spectacular, the win tonight.”
The Panthers struggled stopping opponents through much of the season but that has not been the case of late.
“The defensive coaches really got after us,” Hanna said. “That’s what motivated us.”
Pioneer coach Mike Johnson certainly cherishes winning sectional titles. It was his sixth in his 23 years at the school.
“They’re tough to win. Sectionals are tough to win,” he said. “This is only our sixth one. We reminded the kids that they could do something really a lot of Pioneer teams haven’t done. We’ve had some good teams, but it normally takes a very good team to knock us out of the tournament. In the past normally it’s been the state champion or somebody that’s made it to the state. That’s why we’re going to celebrate this one. This is important and these are the toughest ones to win because it takes three weeks to do and you’ve got to play well for three weeks in order to win a sectional title. They don’t give those things away.”
The Panthers churned out 324 yards of offense including 277 yards, but it was their stifling defense that impressed their coach the most.
“We played our best defensive game of the season tonight, which is good to see,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to see us work on some things in practice that we needed to stop and we got some of those things done against Frontier. I thought [Tyler] Shaw and Zach Mason, our two ends, those guys played with a real motor tonight and made some plays and tackles for a loss, and we haven’t had that all year long. We got a turnover. J.P. Smith in the second half. Those things are just crucial. The defense really, really played as well as they have all season which was good to see.
“We’re playing as well as we have and now’s the time to be doing it.”