by Jason Herd
For the Pharos-Tribune
The last time the Pioneer Panthers had started a season 1-2 was in 2006 after a conference loss to South Newton.
Since then, Mike Johnson’s teams ran off an incredible 47 straight Midwest Conference victories, until Winamac ended the streak two weeks ago.
Despite giving up 91 points so far this season, the Pioneer offense got back on track against South Newton last Friday with a decisive 66-28 victory. Caston also chalked up its first win a week ago over Frontier.
Friday the two rivals locked up in Fulton and provided plenty of fireworks for the fans, racking up over 900 combined yards from scrimmage. After an initial surge from the Comets’ new fast-paced, wide-open offense, the Panthers’ running game took over in the second half and led them to a 62-28 win.
Pioneer (2-2, 2-1 Midwest Conference) got down to business early, when J.P. Smith dashed around the left side and sprinted 73 yards for a touchdown with 10:00 to play in the first.
Smith then intercepted Caston quarterback Quentin Douglass at the Pioneer 21, ending a promising Comet drive. On the very next play junior fullback Justin Mersch cut through Caston’s defense and went 79 yards for the second Panther score. He finished a big night with 254 yards on 28 carries and three touchdowns.
Finding themselves in a familiar hole early, it looked as if Pioneer would have their way with the young Comets (1-3, 1-2). But consecutive big catches by junior Dustin Offenberger led the Comets down into Pioneer territory. On fourth down, Douglass escaped Panther defenders and found junior wideout Daron Weaver for a 15-yard touchdown, closing the gap to 14-7 with 3:49 left in the first.
On the following series Jake Kingery fell on a Panther fumble and Caston took over with good field position. Douglass then hit Offenberger on the first play for a 25-yard touchdown, tying the score at 14-14. Douglass led Caston with 244 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.
Calling Mersch’s number often, Pioneer marched down and scored when Sam Kiser plunged in from a yard out with 6:22 left in the second period.
A costly snap over the Comet punter’s head gave Pioneer more good field position and eventually led to another short Kiser touchdown late in the period.
But Caston wasn’t done putting points on the board. Kingery found a lane around the right side and darted 67 yards for the score, bringing the Comets with 9 before half.
The theme of the night, however, was Caston’s inability to stop the Panther running game. After a long kickoff to the Comet 25, Mersch hauled in a back-breaking 15-yard touchdown with 2:02 left.
Kiser ended Caston’s ensuing drive at the goal line by picking off a Douglass pass.
Mersch struck again early in the third with a 51-yard touchdown, putting Pioneer up 42-21.
Kiser followed with another 3-yard score in the quarter.
Freshman Brandon Piotrowski led the Comets to their final score of the game after a 40-yard gain to the Pioneer 20. Douglass found Piotrowski in the end zone for a 15-yard score with 4:28 to play in the third.
J.P. Smith and Tyler Hanna rounded out the Panther scoring with touchdowns late in the fourth.
“I though our offensive line started to take over early in the second half, which was the key,” Johnson said. “Obviously Douglass can move the ball for them, which gives us concerns about our defense.”