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GIBSON CITY — According to PBL athletic director John Overstreet’s Twitter page, the high football teams at Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley will meet for the 124th time.
According to the Paxton Record’s count, PBL leads the series 59-57-1. Whatever the record may actually be — and however many games the two teams may have played — this installment of the Ford County rivalry will have more than just bragging rights at stake.
Both teams enter the game with winning records, as PBL remains undefeated at 4-0 and GCMS hosts with a 3-1 record. With that in mind, Panthers head coach Jeff Graham said the focus of his players must be on the present, rather than its storied past.
The last time both teams had winning regular-season records was in 2006, when GCMS went 8-1 and PBL had a record of 5-4 before both teams fell in the first round of the playoffs.
“(The rivalry’s) pretty awesome, but quite frankly, we have to prepare for Friday night and not think about what has happened in the past or what’s going to happen in the future, but it’s a pure fact that Friday night is what we need to focus on,” Graham said.
This year’s matchup
The Panthers will have their hands full with a Falcons team that has experienced a turnaround from its last meeting with PBL.
Last year, GCMS fell to 1-4 when it lost 7-6 to PBL.
“I’m pretty impressed, obviously, by them. They’re 3-1,” Graham said. “The one loss they have to a state-ranked Tri-Valley team. I think it’s pretty obvious that they’re a very solid football team. They’re well-coached. I’ve known (GCMS head coach Mike) Allen for a long time, and I know that they’ll be well-prepared.”
Some of GCMS’s turnaround may be due to an easier early-season schedule, Allen said. Last year, the Falcons lost to LeRoy and Ridgeview.
This year, GCMS claimed victory over both teams, both of whom have seen some of their best players from last year depart via graduation.
Much of the credit, however, should go to the much improved play of GCMS’s defense, Allen said. Excluding the Falcons’ 49-7 loss to a Tri-Valley team that received nine votes for a Class 2A top-10 ranking according to the Sept. 17 poll, they allowed 20 points in three games.
“Our defense has really played well,” Allen said. “(Defensive coordinator) Kyle Bielfeldt has done a really nice job with them.”
Graham said he has been impressed with the speedy offense led by senior GCMS brothers Ross and Drake Royal.
“The Royal kids are obviously good, but Lucas Hixson and Tyler Hinshaw also ran the ball well for them this past week,” Graham said. “They really work hard up front. I’m just impressed with their execution and their speed. They’re just a good ballclub.”
At the same time, Allen said he has been impressed with PBL’s ground game and coaching.
“They’re very athletic and have very good size and are very well-coached,” Allen said. “Watching them on film, I haven’t been able to find any weaknesses. They have an outstanding running game. They have done a nice job.
“We’re going to have to play Falcon football on the defensive side,” Allen continued. “We have to read our keys and execute our defensive game plan. On offense, we have to be able to sustain our blocks and pick up their blitzes.”
While the running game has been impressive for PBL, Graham said his team will have to try to limit its turnovers. The Panthers fumbled the football four times last Friday against Watseka.
“I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse, but we have to clean that stuff up. We fumbled the ball, I think, four times the other night, and we have to clean that up. I’m not going to sit here and dwell on that. The bottom line is there’s some things we have to clean up, and we’re going to go on. If I keep focusing on that and worrying about that, then that’s just what happens, so it’s just time to move on.”
Two coaches on both sides
This Friday’s matchup between PBL and GCMS will be the seventh time in which Graham and Allen will coach on opposite sidelines.
In 1986, Graham and Allen were teammates on the Paxton High School varsity team and have formed a friendship that lasts even to this day — even if the two jokingly say that they are giving each other the silent treatment this week.
“He won’t talk to me,” Allen said. “He’s mean to me on game week.”
“Mike will not talk to me,” Graham fired back. “He’s never talked to me.”
All joking — or claims of no communication — aside, Graham said he and Allen have remained good friends ever since their high school days.
“People know Mike and I are friends. Mike’s not only a great coach, but he’s a really good guy, too,” Graham said. “I consider him a friend of mine. We played football together. He was one heck of a football player himself, and just a great guy to be around and a great friend to have.”
“We’ve coach against each other long enough,” Allen added. “We both have our jobs to do, and we both have to stay focused.”
While Allen played for Paxton High School, Graham has spent some time on the other side of his current position as well. He served as a GCMS assistant coach in 1995.
Bielfeldt was a fullback for the Falcons at the time while Nick Rush, who is now an assistant coach for GCMS, was a wide receiver.
“I’ve been a part of (the rivalry), personally, since I was a little kid,” Graham said. “The year I coached as a freshman coach over (at GCMS), I can remember our varsity was 5-0 coming into PBL that year and got beat. It’s obviously been around for a long time. It’s just a lot fun for the kids. We’re about 15 miles apart, and it’s just a lot of fun.
“I can remember the days back when Steve Nuss was playing (for Paxton) and (Gibson City) had Rich Fields (in the mid-1980s),” Graham continued. “I can remember the atmosphere back then because they were good and we were good. It was just a lot of fun, and it is now.”
As head coaches, Graham holds a 4-2 record against Allen with PBL victories in 2002 (57-16), 2003 (49-20), 2004 (14-13) and 2012 (7-6). Allen’s GCMS teams won in 2005 (28-7) and 2011 (34-7).
The Falcons will have to battle more than just an undefeated PBL team Friday.
They will also have to deal with distractions that come with Homecoming festivities going on throughout the week.
“There are a lot of activities,” Allen said. “Trying to focus during Homecoming can get tough. Those other things are part of the experience, but we’ve got to make sure we don’t lose focus on the most important part — the game.”
“I just want our kids to go out and play hard. It’s going to be a fun game, a fun atmosphere,” Graham added. “I know on both sides of the ball, both GCMS’ kids and our own kids have a great group of kids. It’s just going to be a good, fun game and a great atmosphere.”