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CARLINVILLE — Pana junior receiver Ace Armstrong is all alone in the middle of the field as he gets ready to catch a 67- yard touchdown from quarterback Max Lynch. Armstrong’s score gave Pana an18-13 lead at the time in the fourth quarter. Pana went on to win the game, 20-13, and go undefeated and win the South Central Conference championship for 2021.
Cathy Jones Photo
Defeat Carlinville, 27-13 to take SCC crown
CARLINVILLE — Partly cloudy skies and the tem- perature about 50 degrees. A perfect Friday night for football in Carlinville as the Pana Panthers took to the gridiron against the Cavaliers. It became even more perfect by the end of the night as the Panthers defeated Carlinville, 27-13, and finish the season 9-0 and becoming outright 2021 South Central Conference champions.
“I don’t know if I can put it in words,” said an euphoric Pana Head Coach Trevor Higgins was asked following the game. “I’m just so excited for these kids. These kids have just busted it, since the beginning, since summer. . . Man, I just love these kids. They work hard, they’re such a special group. They were talking about it in JFL (jun- ior football league) how spe- cial it would be for them to combine as senior and jun- ior classes and they showed it, a 9-0 season.”
Coach Higgins becomes the third Pana Panthers football coach to lead his team to a 9-0 season. In 2015, Coach Al Stupek’s Panthers went undefeated in the regular season and finished with a berth in the state quarterfinals, going 11-1 for Pana’s best-ever football record. And, in 1955, Coach Charlie Fatchett’s Pana team was the first one to gain perfec- tion, 9-0. In 1955, there were no football play-offs.
But as Coach Higgins said after the game, “It wasn’t pretty,” the Panthers, like all cats, showed they have nine lives. In the fourth quarter, the Panthers were down, 13-12. It was the first time this season Pana trailed in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had just scored a touchdown and the extra point kick was good with 10:36 to play in the game. The ensuing kick-off was mihandled by Haden Stark and the ball went out- of-bounds at the 1-yard-line. In fact, on the first play from scrimmage int he series, quarterback Max L ynch carried the ball and barely made it out of the end zone, giving the Panthers a second-and-10- 2/3rd yards from the one- foot line.
That’s what Pana senior Austin Henschen busted out of the end zone and swept left, making it out to the 16-yard-line and a first down. On first down, L ynch had Ace Armstrong in his sights way down the field all alone. The ball went through Armstrong’s hands for an incompletion. On third down, Carlinville smelled out the screen pass to Brenden Schoonover and it was a 5-yard loss, making it third-and-15 for Pana from their own 11. On the play, the Cavaliers were whistled for off-sides, mak- ing it third-and-10 fo Pana. L ynch’s next pass was incomplete, but another flag against Carlinville for pass interference came flying in and Pana was in business at the 31.
After a 2-yard gain by Henschen, it was redemp- tion time for Armstrong. L ynch found the 5-11 junior streaking down the middle of the field behind the defense and he hit him in stride. No one was going to catch Armstrong and it completed a 67-yard touch- down pass to make it 18-13, Pana, with 7:59 left in the game.
Pana lined up for a 2- point conversion but Carlinville was penalized for an illegal substitution, mov- ing the ball to the 1-1/2- yard-line. L ynch gave the ball to Monte Weddle who bulled his way into the end zone for the conversion and make it a 20-13 Pana lead.
“It is so scary to call plays in any sort of situation, but when you’re on your own one yard line, all you do is put the ball in your play- maker’s hands,” Higgins said of the 99-and-2/3rds- yard drive. “As many ath- letes as we have, if you can get them the ball in space, they can make special plays.”
With time slipping away, on the ensuing drive, Carlinville went for it on fourth-and-6 at their own 32 and didn’t make it. Pana took over on downs at the 32 with 6:52 left in the game. On the first play of this Pana drive, Lynch, utilizing his blocking, ran one of his patented zig-zag rushes, dodging defenders and making his way down to the one. He completed the drive running it in from ayardouttomakeita26- 13 Pana lead with 5:30 left in the game. Bo Christer was perfect with the extra point kick and it was 27-13, Pana.
For all practical purposes, the game ended on the next Carlinville drive. After get- ting the ball at their own 9, they worked the ball up the field and got to a second- and-5 from Pana’s 35-yard- line, but their quarterback, Ayden Tiburzi, threw an interception – one of four on the night – to Pana’s Kyle Kuhn and Pana took over at its own 49 after a nice run- back.
In addition to Kuhn’s interception, Armstrong also had one and Schoonover made two. Schoonover was a ton in the defensive back field and broke up several Carlinville pass plays including on a fourth down play in the end zone. The defense per- formed well and made the play when they needed to, but Higgins didn’t care for their tackling style, espe- cially in the first half.
“The only thing I’m disap- pointed in our defense was our tackling. A lot of arm tackling,” he said. “There at the end we were starting to pick it up. And credit Carlinville. We haven’t seen backs and receivers like that this season.”
The game started inno- cently enough with neither team showing much offen- sive fire power. But just after the midway point of the first quarter, the Cavaliers put together a 72- yard drive which started at their own 28. They started with 6:14 left in the first quarter and continued into the second frame, scoring with 10:29 left in the half. A five-yard touchdown pass from Tiburzi to Ethen Siglock put Carlinville on top, 6-0, as a whole host of Pana defenders blocked the extra point try.
Pana’s offense sputtered until the 1:56 mark of the second quarter when the light bulb came on. In about 90 seconds, the Panthers flew 76 yards down the field with Henschen finding his way to pay dirt with 29.2 seconds to go in the half. As turn about is fair play, a whole host of Carlinville defender got through to block Christer’s extra point try and at halftime, it was a 6-6 contest.
“That’s when I thought the offense really started clicking,” Higgins said. “To be honest with you, I think Max (Lynch) just needed to settled down a little bit. We haven’t been in a lot of close games and so there is a lot of pressure and I think he felt that, trying to do too much, he made a couple of bad reads and then as he settled in that’s when our offense moved the ball.”
Pana was able to muster 316 yards of offense, 148 on the ground and 168 in the air. L ynch was 8-of-19 for those 168 yards but only connected on one of his first 8 pass attempts for 6 yards.
He was also the leading ground gainer with 71 yards rushing and Henschen was right behind with 68. L ynch scored two touchdowns, one through the air and the other on a rushing attempt. Henschen scored twice on the ground.
Armstrong was the lead- ing Pana receiver with 104 yards on 3 catches and a touchdown. Stark caught 2 passes good for 45 yards and Kuhn had a pair of catches for 24 yards.
Defensively, Kuhn had his nose in on 20 tackles with 7 solo and one tackle for loss. Evan Swisher had 17 tack- les and 4 were solos, one of them for a loss as well. Both Drew Hackler and Henschen each had 11 tackles.
Beating Carlinville, espe- cially on their own artificial turf, was special for Higgins, but he has the utmost respect for the Cavalier program.
“I love Chad (Easterday, Carlinville head coach) and respect the heck out of his program. He has a great coaching staff and his kids always fight hard. Even at the lower levels, they are always close games. Last night (Thursday) our fresh- man game went into over- time, so its always a battle between Pana and
Carlinville. Anytime you cam come here, especially when it’s for a 9-0 season, it’s special.”
So now, Pana, ranked fifth in the Class 2A state poll this week (up one place from last week), awaits the release of the brackets and who will be their opponent in the first round of the playoffs next weekend.