PBL football retools with another large senior class

PAXTON -- The Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School football team is retooling once again.
According to PBL head coach Jeff Graham's count, the Panthers have 15 seniors on their squad. The 2014, 2015 and 2016 PBL squads -- all playoff-bound, with the 2015 and 2016 versions each posting a 9-2 record -- all had at least 14 seniors on their roster.
"We're staying steady," Graham said.
As of the fourth day of its first week of preseason two-a-day practices, the Panthers are fielding a 70-man squad.
"My hat's off to them. They're just good kids, and I'm proud of what they've done effort-wise up to this point," Graham said.
The numbers include a 20-man freshman group.
"Our numbers have gotten back up there," Graham said.
At the start of last year, the Panthers had 80 players.
"We're around that mark with our numbers. It's great," Graham said. "I want the kids to come out and play football and have fun. It's enjoyable. I wouldn't say that this week is enjoyable, but it's fun."
The team went through a busy summer of lifting and conditioning that included a handful of 7-on-7 contests, including a 7-on-7 hosted by Rantoul on July 21.
The Panthers have another week of practice before they can scrimmage in the Pork-Chop Kickoff at Jerry Zimmerman Field on Friday, Aug. 18. A week later, they will travel to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley for its season opener at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25.
"Our kids are working hard. We just have so much to get done," Graham said. "We have to get people in the right place, get the right things going and just get everything clicking together. We have a lot of work to do on that, but overall, we're excited. The kids are unbelievable. Our kids have absolutely worked their tails off, and I'm super proud of them."
'Nice little nucleus' on defense
Alex Pippin returns for his senior season on the defensive line.
Pippin was named to the Illinois Football Coaches Association Class 3A All-State Team after recording 50 tackles, including 14 for a loss of yards, and three sacks along with five forced fumbles en route to being selected to the all-Sangamon Valley Conference defensive team.
The Panthers lost all-SVC defensive lineman Tim Tabor and all-SVC special mention Stefano Rodriguez to graduation, but other members of the all-SVC team return for the 2017 season.
Dylan Polson returns to PBL for his senior season after being named to the all-SVC defensive team as a linebacker. Polson recorded 49 tackles, including six for a loss of yards, and one sack in 2016.
Brandon Scott recorded 29 1/2 tackles, including 4 1/2 for a loss of yards, and one sack en route to being selected as an all-SVC honorable mention. He returns for his senior season as well.
After recording 26 1/2 tackles, including 3 1/2 for a loss of yards, along with five interceptions and four forced fumbles in 2016, Will Pound was named as an all-SVC defensive special mention. Pound also returns for his senior season.
Keaton Krumwiede will return for his senior season as a defensive back after recording 21 tackles, including one for a loss of yards, and one interception. 
Jonathan Muller, who recorded 17 1/2 tackles, including four for a loss of yards, returns for his senior season as an outside linebacker. Jake Rich, who had 14 1/2 tackles, including 1 1/2 for a loss of yards and one sack, returns for his junior season as a defensive lineman.
Ben McClure, another senior defensive back, recorded nine tackles, including 2 1/2 for a loss of yards. Mason Ecker, who recorded 14 1/2 tackles, including one for a loss of yards, returns for his junior season as another defensive back.
As a team, the Panthers' defense yielded an average of 16.3 points per game -- including a shutout against Iroquois West -- during the 2016 regular season before a 50-2 victory in the first round of the IHSA Class 3A playoffs over Aledo Mercer County and a 65-0 loss in the second round to eventual state-champion Elmhurst IC Catholic.
"We do have a nice little nucleus back defensively," Graham said. "It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out and how we come together as a unit and as a team and work for one another and keep plugging along. 
"We have a ways to go. We did a lot of conditioning to week, so we need to continue focusing on our execution offensively and defensively and see where it takes us."
'Looking for those leaders' on offense
Last year's Panthers set a school record for points scored with 432. 
Keanan Crabb, who was PBL's leading rusher last year with 1,246 yards and 14 touchdowns -- including four in week eight against Watseka/St. Anne, tying a single-game school record -- on 199 carries, returns for his senior season.
Tyler Adkins, all-SVC offensive lineman, left due to graduation, but Jaxson Coplea, another all-SVC lineman, returns for his senior season along with fellow linemen Brandon Scott and seniors Keegan Lantz and Austin Potter.
Along with Adkins, the Panthers also lost their starting quarterback, Dalton Coplea, and standout wide receivers Andrew Zenner and Cole Eshleman to graduation as well.
Coplea tied a school record last year with 21 touchdown passes while Zenner broke the single-season school record for receptions. Coplea, Zenner and Eshleman were each named to the all-SVC offensive team.
"Overall, last year's group gave a lot of great leadership, too," Graham said. "I'm looking for those leaders in this group to step up and become new leaders for our program."
Pound has been performing most of the reps at the quarterback position.
Muller caught 12 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns out of the slot position last year while rushing for 332 yards and four touchdowns on 58 carries.
"We ran him out quite a bit last year. He can run out there," Graham said.
Ecker caught one pass for 11 yards last year while junior T.J Jones, who ran for 197 yards and three touchdowns last year, might see some passes thrown to him as well, Graham said.
"He's been looking really well, too. He can catch the ball," Graham said.
Krumwiede might see some time as a receiver as well, along with Austin Gooden, who will go into his junior season.
"He's got good hands and does a nice job catching the ball," Graham said. "We've got quite a few guys whom we've kind of been rotating a little bit and taking a look at."
Dru Normile, along with senior Brock Marron, may see some playing time as well. 
"We have some guys we're rotating in and out," Graham said. "It's something we've got to keep working on every day and try to get better." 
A 'loaded' schedule
Last year, PBL defeated GCMS 21-14 in its season opener.
The Ford County-rival Falcons went on to finish its 2016 season with an 8-3 record, and Graham said he expects to see an improved GCMS squad when his team visits Gibson City for its 2017 opener on Aug. 25.
"I think they are probably one of the best teams in the area, if not the best, as far as the athletes they have," Graham said. "I imagine their expectations are probably going to be pretty high. They're going to be really good -- just a well-coached team with great athletes. They're loaded."
Six of PBL's nine regular-season opponents reached the playoffs last year.
"It's a bear of a schedule," Graham said. "Our schedule is loaded. It's probably going to be one of the hardest schedules we've had in a few years. I'm excited about it. Our kids are excited about getting out here and getting football started and wanting to play. It's going to be challenging, but it's going to be fun."
Westville handed PBL its only regular-season loss in 2016 en route to a 10-1 record. 
When the Tigers visit Paxton on Friday, Sept. 1, they will do so with senior quarterback Duncan Hathaway, who threw the game-winning touchdown pass in Westville's 24-22 victory last year, and senior Cameron Nicholas, who rushed for 174 yards and caught two passes for 50 yards in last year's game against PBL. 
"They're loaded as well," Graham said. "I think their expectations are pretty high."
The Panthers are on a 12-game winning streak in the SVC, but Graham said the conference will not be a cakewalk this year.
PBL's conference debut will be at home against Clifton Central in week three on Sept. 8.
Last year, PBL defeated the Comets 33-14 as Clifton Central played with a squad of 16 juniors, including running back Kollin Krumwiede, who had a 330-yard game last year against Prairie Central.
The Comets made the playoffs last year with a 5-5 record despite losing then-junior running back/linebacker Jacob Smith and then-junior running back/strong safety Adrian Pace to season-ending injuries prior to their week-three matchup with the Panthers.
"Clifton is going to be really good this year," Graham said. "This might just be the year for them."
The rest of the Panthers' SVC schedule includes road games against 2016 playoff teams Momence (Sept. 22) and Watseka/St. Anne (Oct. 14).
The Panthers will also travel to Fithian on Oct. 6 for a week-seven matchup against Vermilion Valley Conference foe Oakwood.
After reaching the playoffs last year with a 5-5 record, Oakwood's wing-T offense returns its fullback -- senior Skylar Bolton -- its halfback -- sophomore Colby Smiley -- and its quarterback -- senior Chase Vinson.
Bolton rushed for 1,438 yards -- third-most in the Champaign-Urbana area -- on 250 carries and 13 touchdowns last season. Last year, PBL defeated Oakwood 61-6 as Bolton was serving a one-game suspension after getting ejected from the Comets' previous game against Westville.
"It doesn't get any easier when you start mixing in all the others with Momence, Watseka(/St. Anne) and Oakwood," Graham said. "They say Oakwood's really going to be good this year."
Categories (3):Prep Sports, Football, Sports


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