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NASHVILLE — Pana’s Ace Armstrong, number 4, finds the end zone from 16 yards out on a pass play from Max Lynch during Saturday’s quarterfinal Class 2A game with the Nashville Hornets. The action happened during the third quarter. Nashville posted a 43-19 win on Saturday as they move on to the semifinals on Saturday.
Cathy Jones Photo
NASHVILLE — For the fifth time in Pana Panthers football history, the 2021 team made it to the quarterfinal round of the IHSA Football Playoffs, this time in Class 2A. But like the previous four times, they were denied a trip to the semifinals by the Nashville Hornets, 43-19, in Nashville on Saturday afternoon. Two years ago, it was the Hornets who denied the 2019 team a trip to the semis as the the Hornets were 49-13 winners over Pana, the game also played in Nashville.
“We had a really good game plan going into today,” Pana Head Coach Trevor Higgins said following the ball game. “Just right out the get go, they hit us with some deep passes and went up quick, then we do some uncharacteristic like things – that’s what happens it seems like in this round – and we just can’t figure that out once we get to the quarters – how we normally play and I didn’t feel like we played up to that level today.”
A crucial blow to the Panthers came with about 4 minutes to play in the first quarter when senior Austin Henschen, a stalwart on offense and defense for Pana, had to come out of the game due to an injury. He returned for a play in the second half, but was unable to go.
I hated it for Henschen going out so early,” Higgins said. “I think he would have made a really big difference for us. But, losing someone like him definitely deflated us a little bit and like I said, getting down early.”
On their first possession, the Hornets took the ball 83 yards in 12 plays and just over 4 minutes to draw first blood. Running back Connor Gladson ran it in from 5 yards out and the extra point was good for a 7-0 Nashville lead with 7:54 to go in the frame.
Pana was equally as capable on their first possession, driving 67 yards on 14 plays and burning up more than 6 minutes to tie the game, 7-7. It was in this series Henschen was smacked hard by the Nashville defense after a 7-yard gain and had to be helped off the field. The touchdown was scored by Monte Weddle and Bo Christer’s extra point kick made it a tie game with 1:48 to go in the first.
The Hornets didn’t waste much time and on the first play of the second quarter, quarterback Kolten Gajewski hit Isaac Turner who got behind the Pana secondary for a 45-yard scoring strike to make it 13-7, Nashville, with 11:52 left in the half. Pana would come no closer the rest of the game.
Nashville struck again in the period with 4:40 left in the half on an 11-yard run by Gladson. A try for 2 point was no good, and the score was 19-7, Nashville. It would remain that way into halftime.
Pana got the ball to start the second half, but a fumble by quarterback Max Lynch was recovered by Nashville on the third play of the series. The Hornets went 27 yards in 5 plays and went up 25-7 with 9:33 left in the third as the extra point kick was good.
A 25-yard field goal from Nashville’s Eduardo Garibay put the Hornets up 29-7 with 5:13 left in the third quarter.
Late in the period, the Panthers showed some signs of life as they put together a 10-play drive, covering 74 yards for a score. Lynch hooked up with Ace Armstrong for a 16-yard touchdown pass with 2:37 on the clock in the third. The Panthers went for a 2-point conversion and failed.
Pana got the ball back on an on-side kick, but 3 plays later, Lynch was intercepted by Turner and gave the ball back. Nashville capitalized on the miscue and Gajewski hit Ben Reid streaking down the near sideline for a 78-yard scoring strike and put the Hornets well in control, 36-13, with 53.7 seconds left in the period.
Pana scored one more time on a 61-yard scamper by Lynch on the first play of the fourth quarter. The extra point try was no good as Carter Hocq had to try the kick after Christer, who was lining up to make the attempt, was whistled for not having his moth guard in and had to sit out a play. It was 36-19 with 11:46 left in the game.
Nashville would score once more as Pana failed on a fourth down attempt deep in their own territory to make the final, 43-19.
“I really wanted it today for the players, for the community, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I don’t know why,” Higgins commented.
For Lynch, a junior, he was 12-for-24 through the air for 100 yards. He threw one touchdown pass and one interception. He also rushed for 123 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown.
Kyle Kuhn had two catches for 45 yards and Brenden Schoonover made 4 catches for 23 yards. Armstrong had 4 receptions for 22 yards and a touchdown. Haden Stark caught 2 passes for 14 yards.
Pana totaled 313 yards in total offense. Schoonover ran the ball 6 times for 31 yards and Evan Swisher ran the ball 5 times for 24. Henschen and Armstrong each had 17 rushing yards with Henschen rushing twice and Armstrong, 5 times.
On defense, Kuhn led the way with 17 tackles. Drew Hackler made 15 stops and Swisher, 14 tackles.
Speaking about the seniors who played their final football game, Higgins was appreciative of the group.
“This group – they are just something special,” he said. “They went to baseball and made some school history and we were on the edge of that in football and I know they are picked for the top spot in basketball. Just a great group of athletes, a great group of kids. I love to be around them.
“I’m just proud of our kids, the season they had – I know it sucks now and you don’t really think about the overall season, all you can think about is today – but I’m proud of the kids and love them to death and appreciate letting me coach them,” he concluded.
Pana ended the season, 11-1. They tie the 2015 Pana quarterfinal team with the best record-ever in Pana football history.
Nashville moves on to the semifinals to take on Decatur St. Teresa Saturday, Nov. 20, in Decatur.