ROYAL CENTER — There’s no doubt Pioneer missed Mason Schnurpel last season.
Schnurpel suffered a torn ACL/meniscus in last year’s scrimmage and missed the entire season.
But now one of the Panthers’ best offensive linemen is back. And the Panthers are back in the semistate round, one win away from another State Finals berth.
The No. 3-ranked Panthers (12-1) are seeking their first semistate championship in Class 2A when they travel to Fort Wayne Luers (7-6) on Friday night. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. at Luers Field.
The Panthers had a younger team last year in their first season in five years without Jack Kiser in the backfield. They still managed to go 8-2 but were swept in a pair of games by Lewis Cass.
It didn’t help that Schnurpel missed the entire season.
“That really hurt us last year,” Pioneer coach Adam Berry said. “He was going to be a starting defensive lineman and we were expecting big things from him on the offensive side of the ball, being a leader on the offensive line. He learned under Gavin [James] and Conner [Walker] and all those guys and we were excited to see what he could do as a junior, but unfortunately he went down.
“Just having his leadership out on the field at practice and on Friday nights is tremendous. After his injury was part of the reason why we switched our defense a little bit. This year he’s not playing as much defense as he would probably like, but calling the offensive plays, having our offensive line just focus on offense is not a bad thing. Just having him back obviously makes our team that much better.”
Schnurpel, a 5-foot-10, 225-pound senior, is glad to be back.
“It feels great to be back and playing with my brothers. I missed all last season, so I’m just trying to catch up and have fun my last year,” he said. “Our O-line is doing great. I have confidence in every one of us. We talk, we communicate, we work hard to get the job done and we make big holes for our running backs.”
The Panthers don’t have what you would call a big team this year. But that hasn’t seemed to hurt them.
In fact they have a win over Class 6A Chesterton and they are coming off a 24-21 regional win over No. 1-ranked Andrean, which could be described as a monstrous team size-wise for a Class 2A school.
“They had height, they had weight, they had it all,” Schnurpel said. “They were some big dudes. Honestly, I don’t think size matters, I think our speed can match anything. I think we can block anybody, I think we can move the ball on anybody.”
Pioneer players say that they’re at a size disadvantage against just about every team they go up against. But the Panthers continue to be a football machine. Their big boys can move and they utilize good technique.
It also helps they’ve been running the wing-T since they were in the third or fourth grade.
“It’s second nature,” Schnurpel said. “We haven’t really added too many plays along the road, maybe a few tweaks here and there, probably what we see from the defense, what they give us.”
The vaunted Pioneer rushing attack rushed for 271 yards and 5.1 yards per rush against Andrean.
“That was a fun one,” Schnurpel said. “That brought back memories from Chesterton week, beating that big 6A powerhouse. We came in 3, they came in No. 1. We just wanted to show everybody what we’re made of. In our minds we know we’re No. 1, we just wanted to prove it.”
It also helps that the Panthers have two Division I type of athletes with the Lewellen twins, who have the quickness, speed and strength to play at a high level.
Addai Lewellen, at 5-8, 160 pounds, has an offer to play running back at Valparaiso University and cornerback at Indiana Wesleyan. Ezra Lewellen does not plan to play college football at this time.
“They’re studs,” Schnurpel said. “They are very quick, they’re hard hitters, they have the best work ethic. They’re just all around good kids.”
Ezra Lewellen has rushed for 1,670 yards and 22 touchdowns. Addai Lewellen has rushed for 913 yards and 12 TDs.
Brock Robinson, who has rushed for over 1,100 yards, is out for the season with a broken collarbone suffered during the sectional championship win over Bremen.
Wyatt Marshall filled in for Robinson at fullback last week. Addai Lewellen also rotated in there.
The Panthers start a freshman at quarterback, Cayden Hill, who was clutch throwing the ball in the wins over Chesterton and Andrean.
The starting offensive line includes tight end Logan Smith, left tackle Caleb Sweet, left guard Schnurpel, center Aiden Lowe, right guard Tyler Gaumer, right tackle Michael DePoy and tight end Derrick LeGrand. Wes Hopkins rotates in at right tackle with DePoy and also rotates in at guard when one of those players need a breather.
On defense, Marshall starts at nose guard. LeGrand and Zac Taylor are the defensive ends. Sweet and Gaumer are the inside linebackers, and Smith and Noah Pearson are the outside linebackers. The Lewellen twins are the safeties. Hill starts at cornerback and Beau Mersch has filled in for Robinson at the other cornerback position.
Pioneer is facing a Luers team that competes in the Summit Conference and faces giants such as Dwenger, Snider and Homestead on a weekly basis. The Knights have gotten healthy and caught fire when the tournament began, as they have scored 56, 49, 56 and 36 points in their four tourney games. They are coming off a 36-17 win over Tipton.
“If you see the teams that they play, they were very competitive with big Fort Wayne schools,” Berry said. “All we know is obviously they’re undefeated in the tournament. They are a 2A powerhouse historically, a great, tremendous program.”
Luers has won 11 state championships in football, the last coming in 2012.
The Knights run a spread offense where they like to get the ball out fast to their athletes while they’ll also try to strike deep.
“Any spread team, they want to look to get the run game going, but they definitely look to throw it around, probably even more than what we saw with Chesterton, New Haven and last week with Andrean,” Berry said. “It looks like they take more chances downfield throwing fade routes and letting their athletic speed receivers go get the ball. It’s something where it’s easier said than done, obviously we want to get pressure on the quarterback, but he has a quick release. He looks to get rid of it under 2 seconds and he’s pretty successful with it.
“When you put them on film, you know the name Fort Wayne Luers, but when you put them on film, you see their speed and their team speed. They have quite possibly the most speed we have seen to date. It’s semistate, we’re expecting a challenge, we’re expecting a battle, and we’re going to have to come out ready to go.”
Carson Clark has passed for 2,693 yards and 30 TDs for the Knights. Brody Glenn is the leading receiver with 56 catches for 1,041 yards and 14 TDs. Johnny Sewell has 34 catches for 420 yards, and Krashaun Menson has 26 catches for 448 yards and 6 TDs.
Sir Hale is the leading rusher with 804 yards and 8 TDs, and Ramon Anderson has 511 yards and 8 TDs.
It’s another week and another big challenge for the Panthers.
“They have more team speed [than Andrean], I don’t know about physicality, but they are definitely quicker, so we’ll have to stay low and block like always,” Schnurpel said. “I have high hopes going into this week. I believe we can beat anyone out here.”
The Panthers are trying to avoid what happened during the regular season, when they beat a giant from the Region in Chesterton but lost to a giant from Fort Wayne in New Haven.
“I think maybe we just got worn down. But I think we’re better now. I think we won’t let it happen again,” Schnurpel said.
“We’re much more prepared now. We’ve been working hard in practice, we have long practices, we get it done.”