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Pana hits the road to tangle with Nashville Hornets Saturday

Tom Latonis

Breeze-Courier Writer

(PANA) — Now, there are 8 teams left in he IHSA Class 2A football bracket. Among two of those teams in the southern bracket, the Pana Panthers and the Nashville Hornets, get together on Saturday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. to see who will advance to the semifinal round.

The Panthers are 11-0 while Nashville is riding a 9-game winning streak, with a 10-1 record. Nashville, the champi- ons of the Southern Illinois River-to-River Conference with a 4-0 mark, lost game 2 of the regular season at Freeburg, 26-21. The Hornet offense is scoring a a 43.6 points per game clip while giving up 12.3 on defense. That compares to the Panthers who have scored 46.7 points on offense and giving up a stingy 11 points per game.

In addition to a spot in the semifinals next week, Pana will be looking for a bit of revenge as the Hornets ended the Panthers’ 2019 campaign in the third round, 41-19.

In the first two rounds, Nashville knocked off Mendon Unity, 48-20, then beat Bismarck-Henning-Rossville- Alvin last weekend, 33-26.

“We know when you get to the third round, you’re going to face the best of the best,” Pana Head Football Coach Trevor Higgins said. “These guys (Nashville) overall solid program, very disciplined, very well coached, but we’re excited to go down there and see what we got.”

In Pana’s first two games, they were winners over Arthur-Lovington/Atwood- Hammond, 49-19 and took care of Maroa-Forsyth, 29-7 last Saturday.

Nashville’s rushing attack is led by senior Connor Gladson (5-11, 205) along with fellow seniors Kolten Gajewski (6-6, 210), the quarterback, and Ian Blazer (5-10, 170). In last Saturday’s game, Gajewski ran for 77 yards and threw for 177 yards, completing 16-of- 25. Gladson got 24 rushes and gained 170 yards. The team ran for 251 yards in the game.

For the season, Gladson had rushed for over 1,300 yards and Gajewski and Blazer have rushed for over 500 yards each. Isaac Turner (6-3, 175), a senior, anchors the receiving group which is complemented by seniors Ben Reid (6-4, 175), a big play threat and Radyn Schwartzkopf (6-2, 180), who had an outstanding game last Saturday.

“We know their receiving corps is really tall,” Higgins said. “But, we’ve got some good athletes ourselves. There’s going to be some jump balls that we hope (Brenden) Schoonover and Carter Beyers can jump up and time it right.”

For the Panthers, junior quarterback Max Lynch is an important piece of the offense. Between passing and rushing, Lynch has 2,663 offensive yards. The 5-11, 160-pound has rushed for 1,200 yards on 120 carries and has 1,463 through the air. He has 18 touchdowns passing and 19 touchdowns rushing.

Bolstering the running game is Austin Henschen. The 5-11, 170-pound senior has amassed 950 yards on the ground on 90 carries with a dozen rushing touchdowns. Leading receiver is senior Brenden Schoonover who has 23 catches for 420 yards and 6 scores. Right behind him is Ace Armstrong with 403 yards on 21 catches and 3 touchdowns. Haden Stark, a junior, has 18 catches and 395 yards with 5 TD’s and senior Kyle Kuhn has made 18 catches for 280 yards and 5 touchdowns.

For the defense, Drew Hackler is a one-man wrecking machine. The 6-4, 205- pound senior has 8 sacks this season and 23 tackles for loss. He had a total of 104 tackles. In the secondary, Schoonover has a hawk eye for the ball. This season he has 7 interceptions – a single season school record.

Kuhn has tallied 131 tackles with 9 for losses and Evan Swisher has made 95 stops with 10 tackles for loss. Senior Isaac Marty had got 53 tackles to his credit with 11 TFL and 2 sacks.

Last week, Pana’s complete dominance of Maroa made it “a statement game” for the Pana program.

“If you look at our record since Coach (Al) Stupek and I took over, Pana has just not the respect the way other teams are in our area,” said Higgins. “We haven’t made it to the semis or state yet, but our overall win-loss record is pretty darn good, but we don’t seem to get that respect from everyone else. So, to be able to beat a good, solid Maroa team and the history that they have, to be able to do that kind of gets us a step in the right direction to get some respect for our name.”

But, respect alone won’t win any ball games. And while the Panthers are coming up with keys for the game, the Hornets’ head Coach, Stephen Kozuszek is also looking for ways to stop the Panthers’ attack.

“On offense, it will be key that we hold on to the ball, eliminate any negative yardage plays and connect downfield shots when we take them,” Nashville’s Head Coach Stephen Kozuszek said. “Defensively, we have to really limit their big plays and try to keep them from getting in open space as much as possible. Pana’s team speed stands out on both sides of the ball.”

Higgins thinks the Hornets’ defense is going to throw a challenge at Pana’s offense.

“Their defense is something you don’t see very often one linebacker in the middle and four down linemen, so a five man box. They have two outside linebackers that are stacked right on the edges, so they like to funnel everything inside to that middle backer who is probably the anchor of that defense. He runs around and makes a lot of plays for them. And, it’s hard to get outside, because those out- side linebackers are stacked. We sat down as a staff and it took us a couple of days to figure out a good game plan with what we have going on to scheme against that defense. We’ve been working on and hopefully it works as we go along on Saturday.”

Coach Kozuszek is also going to count on his defense to win the game.

“We are very experienced int he box, as well as in the back end of our secondary” the coach said. “We have been able to consistently create turnovers throughout the season and that has been especially true in the playoffs, as we have forced ten turnovers in the first two rounds.”

This is one of four quarterfi- nal games on Saturday. Also in the southern division, four- seed Breeze Mater Dei travels to Decatur to take on St. Teresa, seeded first, at 3:00 p.m. The winner of the Pana- Nashville game play each other next Saturday for a chance to play in the State Championship game on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 at 1:00 p.m. on the campus of Northern Illinois University. Pana is the number two seed in the bracket and Nashville, number six.

In the northern bracket 13th seed Kankakee Bishop McNamara is at number one Wilmington at 5:00 p.m. Saturday. In the other game, number three Farmington is at Downs Tri-Valley, number two, at 1:00 p.m.

Pana, St. Teresa, Mater Dei, Wilmington, Farmington and Tri-Valley are all 11-0 on the season. Bishop McNamara is 7-4 while Nashville is 10-1.

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