By Beau Wicker Pharos-Tribune
---- — Pioneer vs. Winamac. Winamac vs. Pioneer.
Tonight’s regional showdown has seemed almost inevitable for weeks now.
Have the young Panthers improved enough since the start of the season to knock off this dominating Warriors squad? Can the Warriors continue their dream season by getting past this up and coming Panthers team?
The questions will be answered tonight at The Pit in Royal Center. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 o’clock.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than this around here,” Winamac coach Tim Roth said.
The Panthers are seeking their fourth regional title and first since they went back-to-back in 2001 and 2002. The Warriors are seeking their second regional title to join the 2000 championship.
The winner will face tonight’s winner between No. 8 Tri-Central (11-1) at South Adams (5-7) next week in a semistate game.
Pioneer enters ranked No. 9 in Class A in both the AP and coaches’ poll. The Panthers have won 10 games in a row and have averaged 51.3 points per game during the winning streak.
They have dialed up their defense in the tournament, allowing just 12 points total in three sectional wins over Seeger, Carroll and Frontier.
Winamac enters ranked No. 3 in AP poll and No. 1 in the coaches’ poll. The Warriors have been a dominant team all season. They enter averaging 50.1 ppg, which is sixth in the state, and allow just 9.1 ppg, which is seventh. Their average margin of plus-41 ppg is fourth. Their first-team defense allowed just two scores during the regular season.
They continued their impressive play in sectional play with an impressive 41-20 win over No. 7 Whiting in a semifinal that was surrounded by a 73-14 win over Lake Station and a 33-7 win at West Central.
The Warriors got their starting quarterback back last week in Parker Fox, who returned for the first time in six games from a broken collarbone injury. He passed for 87 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 14 yards on just three attempts.
“He was a little rusty and nervous to start with,” Roth said. “Once he settled down and got a couple licks in he handled it very well. He was rusty to begin with with the fumble there. He did more than what we asked him to do and played more on defense than he probably should have. He’s a gifted athlete and a difference maker and we need him on the field whenever and wherever we can get him there.”
Fox had 155 yards rushing and 2 TDs and 158 yards passing and 2 TDs in the Warriors’ 34-8 win over Pioneer in Week 2.
“Them having Fox back changes the dynamics on the defensive side,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have to be focused on certainly him and 32 [Tyler Katschke]. We’re going to have to somehow find a way to contain Fox and slow down 32 to have any kind of success. We can’t allow big plays. That’s in any ballgame, if you allow big plays you’re going to be in trouble.”
Fullback Katschke has rushed for 1,877 yards and 30 TDs to lead the Warriors.
Fullback Justin Mersch has rushed for 1,778 yards and 26 TDs to lead the Panthers. Quarterback Sam Kiser has rushed for 1,067 yards and 21 TDs.
Winamac’s Week 2 win over the Panthers ended their 47-game Midwest Conference winning streak. It’s just the Panthers’ second loss in the last 86 league games.
“Certainly if we’re going to be successful we’re going to have to change some things around from what happened in that first game,” Pioneer coach Mike Johnson said.
Winamac’s win in Week 2 was at Roudebush Stadium.
“It’s going to be a big challenge. We haven’t won there since 2000,” Roth said. “They’re on a 10-game winning streak and haven’t been beat since we beat them in Week 2 which seems like a year ago.
“We have to play a very good football game to beat them. I know Pioneer has improved and they have kids are in different positions. We’ve improved and are settled on what we want to do. It’s a matter of going out and executing it.”
Johnson said his team can no longer use the excuse of being young in this contest.
“Both teams are better than they were at that point in time. That was real early. We were just coming off a 29-0 game against Cass and Winamac was a very good team at that point in time too. We were young. I don’t think we can use that ‘young’ thing anymore now after 12 ballgames,” he said. “I think at this point in time everybody has a chance, it’s just who plays better on that given night.