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ONARGA – A year after going to the Class 3A state as Paxton-Buckley-Loda’s seventh-grade team, this year’s eighth-grade team is one win away from returning to the big dance.
Two days after beating Iroquois West 34-18 in the semifinals, the Panthrers advanced to the sectional round by defeating Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley 26-14 Thursday.
“It feels good,” PBL head coach Jeff Sinn said. “These guys worked hard for this. It’s one of our goals for this year, so it’s always nice to check one of those off again. We had several (goals) this year, and we met several of them.”
The Panthers (19-2) will face a familiar opponent at the Paxton Sectional in St. Joseph, which defeated PBL 32-30 in its regular season finale. Brandon Trimble torched the Panthers with 27 points.
The sectional contest will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The winner advances to the state tournament in Monticello, facing the Vandalia Sectional champion at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9.
“If you want to get back to state, you’ve got to win the sectional,” Sinn said. “Obviously, we didn’t have a very good showing against St. Joe last time we played them. We’re chomping at the bit to get back at them. We know they’ve got one good kid. We’re going to prepare. Like I’ve always said all year long, we have to take it one game at a time. We don’t want to look ahead to state. We’ve got to take care of our sectional. It is nice that it’s at home. We’ll get that home crowd in there. We’re excited to get back there, and then hopefully move from there to state.”
Like St. Joseph, GCMS was an opponent with which PBL was very familiar. The Panthers defeated the Falcons by the slim margin of 26-25 in a Nov. 27 contest.
“Gibson played a really good game,” Sinn said.” We knew they were going to be tough. When I was there, the coach always said, ‘It was our Super Bowl to try to beat PBL,’ so we knew we were going to get their best effort. They gave it to us, and we just executed and played good defense tonight and we came out on top. It’s always a really close game. It just seems like they always play us really tough. You just never know what you’re going to get when you get here with them.
“They’re a good team. They really improved this year from where they were last year. They have nothing to be sorry for. They’re going to be good in the future if they keep doing what they’re doing, but so are we. We came out, we executed, we played good defense, and we deserved to win. It’s nice for the kids.”
In Thursday’s regional title game, both teams came out struggling on the offensive end. Cole Eshleman’s lone three points via 3-pointer gave PBL a 5-0 lead with 50 seconds left in the first quarter.
Neither team could reach double digits in either of the four quarters, as PBL went into halftime leading 16-5. The Panthers yielded only two points in the second and fourth quarters each and three in the first.
“I think both teams came out pretty tight,” Sinn said. “Maybe it was the nerves. I think we had a little bit of trouble getting the ball in the hole. That’s expected in a regional. I’ve been there before in that same situation. Defensively, we did a good job of preparing for what they did and how they run their offense. I think we knew what to expect, and that just helped us that much more. We did a good job defensively. I’m proud of them. That’s what you’ve got to do. If the ball’s not going in the hole that night, you’ve just got to play defense, and that’s what we did.”
Dalton Coplea led the way for PBL offensively, scoring seven of his team’s nine points in the second quarter. He would finish the game as its high scorer with 12 points.
“Dalton’s been our leader, one of our leaders, all year,” Sinn said. “Good players need to step up in big games, and that’s what he did for us tonight. He’s done that twice so far for us in the regional and he’s been there all year. You need someone to handle the ball and make shots when you absolutely need them. We just need to keep executing with him. We need him against St. Joseph. I think last time we played them, he kind of disappeared a little bit.”
GCMS outscored PBL 7-4 through a majority of the third quarter. Any momentum gained from the run, however, was halted by an Andrew Zenner 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer, which gave the Panthers a 23-12 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“That was huge,” Sinn said. “They did a good job coming out with a little bit of intensity and trying to get back in the game. When you make shots like that at the end of the quarter, it was just kind of a momentum killer for them, definitely. We’ve come to expect (Zenner) to step up and make those shots, and he did that, so that was nice.”
Zenner finished the game with nine points. Louis Rodriguez added two points.
Although only four players contributed to PBL’s scoring total, Sinn said his team’s regional win – and its winning season – is the result of the teamwork of each of his players.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Sinn said. “We don’t get to this point without 15 guys. It’s not just Dalton Coplea, Andrew Zenner, Cole Eshleman, Ryley Foellner or Louis Rodriguez. There are 10 other guys on this team that get us to this point in the year. I’m proud of everyone for working hard, and they’re going to continue to work hard for their school and for the town, and hopefully we can come out with a sectional win Wednesday night and on to state.”
PBL 26, GCMS 14
Logan Davis 0-0-0, Keegan Allen 0-0-0, Caleb Pulley 0-0-0, Cullen Brucker, 0-0-0, Nick Schultz 0-0-0, Tucker Cribett 2-0-6, Jacob Nuss 0-0-0, Austin Allen 2-1-6, Michael Lewis 0-0-0, Sam Baillie 0-0-0, Dylan Christensen 0-0-0, Kyle Freehill 0-0-0, Alex Hunt 1-0-2, Trey Cail 0-0-0. Totals 5-1-14.
Cole Eshleman 1-0-3, Louis Rodriguez 1-0-2, Kaleb Denault 0-0-0, Colton Kleinert 0-0-0, Ryley Foellner 0-0-0, Dalton Coplea 4-3-12, Corbin Snyder 0-0-0, Cooper Johnson 0-0-0, Carter Riecks 0-0-0, Michael Curry 0-0-0, Tyler Adkins 0-0-0, Brendan VanAntwerp 0-0-0, LUke Fitton 0-0-0, Andrew Zenner 4-0-9, Tom Henrichs 0-0-0. Totals 10-3-26.
GCMS 3 2 7 2 -- 14
PBL 7 9 7 3 -- 26
3-pointers -- GCMS 3 (Cribbett 2, A. Allen). PBL 3 (Eshleman, Coplea, Zenner).
St. Joseph vs. PBL, 6 p.m.
At Monticello Middle School
Game 1 – Winner Marshall Sectional vs. Winner Fieldcrest Sectional, 10 a.m.
Game 2 – Winner El Paso-Gridley Sectional vs. Winner Lincoln Sectional, 11:30 a.m.
Game 3 – Winner Paxton Sectional vs. Winner Vandalia Sectional, 1 p.m.
Game 4 – Winner Mendon Unity vs. Winner Farmington Central Sectional, 2:30 p.m.
Game 5 -- Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 5 p.m.
Game 6 -- Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 6:30 p.m.
THURSDAY, Feb. 14
Third-place game -- Loser Game 5 vs. Loser Game 6, 6 p.m.
Championship game -- Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6, 7:30 p.m.