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PAXTON — After months of offseason work, the season is ready to get underway.
Paxton-Buckley-Loda will get things started on Friday at Zimmerman Field, when it hosts El Paso-Gridley at 7 p.m.
“We’re excited, PBL head coach Jeff Graham said. “The coaches and myself were just talking about how we were in that weight room all winter long and it’s just like the season is going to be here before you know it. These kids had a great offseason. I can’t be more proud of their work ethic and their effort. It’s just so far, so good. I hope it can carry over to Friday night with El Paso, and I think it can.”
Last Friday, PBL got more than a taste of pork chops at the Pork Chop Scrimmage. They got a taste of live action in front of a home crowd for the first time this season.
The fans in the bleachers for the varsity scrimmage got a glimpse of some tenacious defense that featured some hard hitting, the kind of thing Graham said he wanted to see.
“I thought our scrimmage went really well,” Graham said. “Our kids played hard. There were quite a few hits out there. We found a couple of hitters. For us to improve and continue to get better, we’ve got to continue finding hitters. I think on Friday night, we found some kids that can step up.”
As a result of the hard hitting and teams in the scrimmage being split up evenly, no touchdowns were scored.
“That was actually a good thing,” Graham said. “We split the teams up as even as possible. Our kids were getting after it.”
Junior defensive back Vaughn Gentzler intercepted a pass in the scrimmage.
“I felt like he stepped up at a cornerback position. I thought Vaughn looked pretty good. Vaughn’s improving each and every day.”
Graham said many players contributed to the defensive effort at the scrimmage and should do the same this upcoming Friday against EPG.
“Defensively, I thought (senior linebacker) Nick Heisler looked decent at nosetackle,” Graham said. “(Senior defensive lineman) Reno Jamison looked decent defensively as well. We’ve just got to get better and better.”
Offensively, PBL did get some productive rushing efforts from senior fullback Jesse Houtzel, junior running back Drew Schrodt senior and wingback Wil McClure.
“Jesse Houtzel and Drew Schrodt both ran the ball hard,” Graham said. “Wil normally plays at two-back for us, but because we split them evenly, he was playing a three-back, and I thought he ran the ball hard.”
Passing-wise, Graham said junior quarterback Weston Weber made some mistakes, but led the offense like a leader.
“He threw the ball alright,” Graham said. “I think that there were a couple there that he overshot or whatever. Weston Weber’s a hard worker and one of the leaders of our team. He runs a good offense. I’m proud of Weston on his work ethic and his will and belief. He’s just a good kid that works hard. We have several of those this year.”
Titans head coach Steve Rigsby said the return of Weber, Schrodt and McClure should do some good things for the Panthers offensively.
“We know they’re going to be much improved in the backfield,” Rigsby said.
Offensively or defensively, PBL will need its best effort against a perennial playoff contender in EPG.
The Titans have a new coach after Dave Svehla, who led the team to the playoffs the last two years, stepped down after his wife was transferred via State Farm Cos.
Rigsby served as an assistant coach for EPG since 1999 and held the position of defensive coordinator before being promoted to head coach this year. He inherits a Titans football program that has reached the playoffs four times over a seven-year span.
While the coaching staff has undergone a major change, Graham said the program has not.
“They are a program,” Graham said. “They’ve had success. They’re always well-coached. They’re just a perennial playoff team. About every team we play this year is a perennial playoff team.”
Rigsby said, despite only three returning starters on both sides of the ball, the goal is to get back to the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
“Our goal every year is to make the playoffs,” Rigsby said. “We’re only returning three starters on both sides of the ball, so we may experience some growing pains in the beginning, but hopefully can win enough games to get to the playoffs. That’s the expectation in this community — to get to the playoffs.”
One of the starters returning to the Titans will be quarterback Bodee Schlipf, who will be a third-year starter this season.
“We’re obviously expecting a lot out of him,” Rigsby said.
Schlipf returns to EPG for his senior season after making the all-Heart of Illinois Conference Second Team last year.
“He’s a big-ole quarterback that can chuck the ball,” Graham said. “I look for them to have a little bit more mixture of a pass-run this year,” Graham said.
Sophomore Luke Wilson will get his share of the carries when the Titans decide to run the ball.
“They’ve got a good runner back this year,” Graham said. “They’ll still be able to run the ball.”
With the loss of all-HOIC First-Team lineman Noah Johnson, among others, Wilson will have a young line blocking for him.
Nader Abbed, a 5-foot-9, 210-pound all-HOIC Second Teamer, returns to the offensive line for his senior season.
He is, however, the Titans’ only returning starter on the offensive and defensive lines.
“We’re going to play a lot of young kids. I think we have some talented kids, but they haven’t had a lot of playing time.”
Despite the youth movement on EPG’s offensive and defensive game, Graham said his players should prepare for a physical game.
“They always hit,” Graham said. “They always do things right. It’s just one of those things where we need to bring our A-game. We need to not make mistakes and hit.”
Graham said he hopes PBL’s defensive effort in the scrimmage can carry over to the EPG game.
“I think we’ve put together a pretty strong defense this year,” Graham said. “Going into our first game, we’re still a couple of hitters away from where we want to be right now, but we have really — and I give all the coaches credit on this — put together what we think is a good nucleus for our defense right now. We’re excited about that.”
This Friday’s game against the Titans will be the first of three at home for PBL to start the season.
“It kind of sounds like a homecoming cliche, but when you’re at home like this, sometimes there’s things that can possibly distract you,” Graham said. “I think we just need to stay focused. We’re going to focus on this one game right now. I think that’s the key word: focus. We need to get our brain on track when we get out there to practice tonight and focus this whole week on El Paso.”
Graham said if his team stays focused, plays hard and does all the right things, it might have a chance to win Friday’s game.
“A win would be nice,” Graham said. “We’ll see what happens. Our kids want to win. We all want to win. Obviously, that’s the ultimate goal here. It’s doing things right. I think that’s important. Other than the fact that, obvioulsly, our goal is to win, is to look like a football team. If we play hard and hit, good things can happen.”
Rigsby added that, with EPG being a young team and PBL returning what could be a competitive team this year, the tables may be turned from last year.
“The tables may be turned,” Rigsby said. “We don’t know much about them other than what we saw last year, but from what we know now, we know they’re going to be more competitive than they were last year, and we’re anticipating that.”