Tom Latonis Breeze-Courier Writer
PANA — Saturday afternoon at Brummett Field in Pana, the hometown Panthers proved they are among the elite Class 2A teams in the area after downing powerhouse Maroa-Forsyth, 29-7. The Panthers, undefeated at 11-0, will try to take another step on the playoff ladders this coming Saturday afternoon and do something four other Pana playoff teams have failed to do – win a quarterfinal game.
“At the start of the season, the boys were talking about doing something special this season,” Pana Head Coach Trevor Higgins said. “No Pana team has ever made it to semis, this week we have a chance to do something special. I think if we were going to play the game tomorrow, these boys would be ready to play. They’re ready to come out, have a good week of practice and the see what happens after that.”
It will be a rematch of the 2019 playoffs when the Panthers went south, only to lose to the Hornets, 41-19, in the quarterfinal round of the Class 2A tournament, the last time the IHSA conducted a football playoff. Nashville went on to be runner-up to Sterling-Newman in the finals.
A stifling Pana defense held the Trojans in check for most of the game. The defense made a statement early on in the game – at the 11:18 mark of the first and Maroa’s second play from scrimmage. Pana senior Brenden Schoonover stepped front of a Kaiden Maurer pass at the Trojan’s 45 for an interception and ran it back to the 35. Six plays later, senior Austin Henschen bulled his way into the end zone from a yard out for the score. Bo Christer’s extra point kick was blocked, so Pana held a 6-0 lead at the 8:35 mark.
Schoonover’s interception was the first of two for the senior safety in the game. He now has seven for the season, a school record.
“I look at the quarterback – I’m really not supposed to do that – but I just sit back and pick those off,” Schoonover said with a broad grin.
The Trojans started to get some traction late in the first quarter and early second, but it stalled at their own 25. A good punt put the ball back into Pana territory at the 37.
The first play from scrim- mage on Pana’s next possession, quarterback Max Lynch dropped back to pass and found a streaking Schoonover going down the field and dropped the ball perfectly into his grasp, culminating in a 63-yard touchdown. Pana lined up for the extra point kick, but Monte Weddle stepped in front of the snap and took the ball in for the 2-point conversion to make it a 14-0 Pana lead with 8:55 left in the half.
Pana’s offense went into a bit of a funk following that score. While Maroa was able to move the ball between the 20’s, Pana’s defense would not break. As the Trojans were building up a head of steam, moving the ball down the field, it was Schoonover who popped their balloon with his second interception of the game with less than 40 seconds to go in the half. The Panthers went to the locker room with a 14-0 lead.
Pana got the ball back to start the second half and looked like they had shaken the funk, but on a fourth- and-10 Lynch’s pass attempted was intercepted by linebacker Drilon Ballazhi at the 50, and ran it back to the Pana 37. Maroa wasn’t able to capitalize and running back Jacob Blunck fumbled the hand-off exchange and the Panthers pounced on it to get the ball back.
On the next series, Trojan quarterback Maurer got shaken up on the play and went out of the game. He would return on Moroa’s next possession and on first down, escaped untouched by any Pana defender, for a 78- yard run from scrimmage which cut Pana’s lead in half, 14-7, with 1:57 left in the third.
“The middle two quarters it was hard to find a touch- down,” Higgins said. “We knew going in, playing Maroa, they have a great staff and they would have a great game plan for our offense and they did. They shut us down for two full quarters. Luckily, our guys were able to stick with it and battle it out. Mostly during halftime we just talked
about how we need to stay on blocks.”
But on Pana’s next possession, on the fifth play of the series, an errant pass from Lynch was intercepted by Maroa’s LaRon McCloud and they were back in business at their own 37 with 59 seconds to go in the third frame.
This Maroa possession went 8 plays and they failed to convert a fourth-and-8, turning the ball over to the Panthers at the Pana 36. From there, Pana went on the decisive drive of the football game in 8 plays and converting on a pair of third down situations.
“I felt like our guys were letting their guys go after awhile and they were coming in and making a play,” Higgins said. “I think that’s when the game changed when our guys were able to stay on their blocks and they opened up some holes for Max (Lynch, Pana quar- terback) and (running back Austin) Henschen.”
The drive started with Lynch getting sacked for a 5-yard loss. He got those 5 yards back on a run up the middle to set up and third- and-10 from the Pana 36. Lynch made the connection with Ace Armstrong for a 15- yard gain to the Maroa 44. Another third down came up and the Panthers needed 5 yards for the first. Henschen got the handoff, went up the middle and just a shoestring tackle by Blunck prevented a touchdown. From the 19, Henschen got the call again and got down to the 1. Lynch finished off the scoring drive with a one-yard plunge and it was 20-7, Pana, with 6:44 left to play. The Panthers again lined up for the 2-point conversion and this time Carter Beyers made the conversion run for a 22-7 advantage.
Christer’s kickoff sailed into the end zone for a touchback and the Trojans failed to move the ball as Pana’s defense clamped down. They failed to convert on fourth down and Pana took over on downs at the Maroa 16. On fourth-and-8 from the 14, Schoonover ran a fade route into the right corner of the end zone and Lynch hit him perfectly to make it a 28-7 game 2:47 left in the game. Christer’s extra point kick made the score 29-7, which turned out to be the final.
Pana was able to rack up 295 yards of offense in the game. Lynch connected on 14-of-27 pass attempts for 174 yards with a touchdown and 2 interceptions. He also rushed 14 times picking up 32 yards with a touchdown.
Henschen rushed for 80 yards on 14 tries and recorded a touchdown. He also caught 3 passes for 44 yards. Schoonover had 6 receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown. Kyle Kuhn caught 4 passes for 34 yards and Armstrong made 2 catches for 22 yards.
The defense had 9 tackles for loss, led by Drew Hackler with 13 tackles, 3 of them tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Kuhn had 15 tackles includ- ing one with a tackle for loss. Schoonover and Beyers each had 10 tackles with Beyers having a tackle for loss. Henschen made 9 tackles and Isaac Marty got 7 tackles with 2 of them for losses.
There was exuberance all over the field for the Panthers following the win.
“It feels really great,” Schoonover said following the game. “We didn’t have playoffs last year and this year, doing it, kind of wasted last year, so this year means a lot – last ride. Senior year.”
And, the 5-10 senior knew they were in a dog fight Saturday afternoon.
“They were a tough team,” Schoonover said. “We knew if we could contain their run, get them into a lot of third-and-longs, on passing downs, I think our corners – we work hard in practice and get that ball tipped away. I’d put these guys (Maroa) and Carlinville as the top teams. Carlinville was a tough team, too.”