PAXTON -- When Josh Pritchard applied for the job as Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School head football coach, what impressed him the most was the football program's tradition.

"It's pretty recognizable, especially in the last few years," Pritchard said. "I'm really excited to get there. I'm ready to get going, that's for sure."

The PBL district school board approved Pritchard's hiring as the high school's head football coach -- and as a high school history teacher -- on Wednessday. He replaces Jeff Graham, who resigned in March after 12 years guiding PBL, split between two stints, to take superintendent and principal roles at Ludlow Grade School.

Graham led the Panthers to an IHSA Class 3A playoff appearance in each of the last five years, including second-round appearances in three of the last four years and Sangamon Valley Conference championships in 2015 and 2016.

Graham pushed PBL to eight Class 3A playoff appearances and a 67-52 ledger.

"It's kind of nice to walk into a program that is built around football and has had some success," Pritchard said. "Coach Graham had done a great job with them, and I just hope to continue the success, and maybe we can keep making it one step further in the playoffs."

"I think he's excited for that challenge and to be in a situation where we are expecting to continue the recent success we've had and build on it," PBL High School athletic director Brock Niebuhr added.


The situation was different for Pritchard when he became the defensive coordinator for Oblong High School's football team, fresh off graduating from Southeast Missouri State in 2011.

Thanks partly to a defense that allowed 20.6 points per game, Oblong earned the football program's first-ever playoff appearance in 2012 via a 6-4 record.

"We brought the football mindset that you can be a winner," Pritchard said. "You've just got to give a little bit of effort. We had some talent there that wanted to be winners. They just needed a few extra coaching things. One thing we showed them is that you can win as long as you put the work in. We were happy to do that."

The same year Pritchard joined Oblong, Travis Reider took over as head coach. Pritchard said he has kept in touch with Reider, who led Oblong to another playoff appearance in 2016 via a 5-5 record.

"We've done a lot of stuff together," Pritchard said. "We communicate pretty regularly. I realized that, even though they were historically losers, you can turn around a program, and I've done that at two different places, I feel like."

After a stint as defensive coordinator at Charleston (Mo.), Pritchard took an assistant coaching position at Petersburg PORTA High School in 2015 before becoming the school's head football coach in 2017.

The Bluejays went 5-13 during Pritchard's two years as head coach -- 2-7 in 2017 and 3-6 in 2018.

"The record can kind of be deceiving," Pritchard said.

From 2014-16, PORTA's record was a combined 2-25, including an 0-9 record in 2015.

"We knew it was going to be a rebuilding effort," Pritchard said. "We were getting 40-pointed over and over. We wanted to make sure that we instilled in those kids (the mindset that) you can be a winner. We're going to work hard. We did a few things, and we were competitive in a vast majority of the games."

Last fall, the Bluejays' six losses included a 26-24 close call against an Athens tam that would finish its season with an 8-3 record and a 21-6 defeat against a Pleasant Plains team that reached the second round of the playoffs as well via a 7-4 record.

"To go from one win in three years to three wins this past year was an improvement," Pritchard said. "Obviously, it wasn't everything that we wanted to do, but I think we saw vast improvement. I think if you talked to most coaches that I coached against, we did a lot of special things at PORTA over the last two years."

"I don't think his win-loss record is indicative of the coach he is," Niebuhr added.


Niebuhr estimated that Pritchard was chosen for the PBL football head coaching job among about 10 candidates.

"His football acumen and knowledge is really good. In the short time of meeting him, his ability to build relationships, his energy and his passion for football and for PBL football really stood out," Niebuhr said.

"We're excited. We feel like we got a really good, young, energetic coach that can bring a lot of life to the program and continue the stability that we've had since coach Graham's been in place."

The 30-year-old Pritchard heard about the job through some networking as a part of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association as he attended a coaches clinic at the University of Illinois during the last weekend of March.

"They're the ones who really pushed me and told me I needed to apply, knowing how great the job was and what coach Graham has done," Pritchard said. "They thought it was something I could do -- to continue the success.

"The coaches that I've worked with here at PORTA have really done a great job of helping me network as a younger coach. They're the ones who said, 'You need to make sure you need to apply and at least give it a shot.' I was obviously happy to do that, and it just worked out well for me."

Pritchard said he does not want to "try to reinvent the wheel" as the football program changes from Graham's leadership.

"I obviously think we'll differ a little bit just because we're two different people and two different coaches, but there are some things we want to keep the same," Pritchard said. "They play hard. They're physical. We'll change a few things. The offense will probably change a little bit. On defense, we may move things around and whatnot. I want to keep some of the same things, but we're also going to have minor wrinkles that I feel can maybe give us that one step above."

Pritchard's main football philosophy is led by his desire for his kids "to be tough and hard-nosed."

"I want to be the most physical team on the field," Pritchard said. "There are multiple ways to do that, and I think we have quite a few weight-room kids that are ready to put the pads on already."

Pritchard is a 2007 graduate of Triad High School in Troy. The football team at Triad was in its third year of what was a stretch of eight straight playoff appearances when Pritchard was in his senior year.

"The drive for pushing for football and sports is a huge thing at both (Triad and PBL)," Pritchard said. "I think they both bring toughness to the football game. They want to instill their will on teams, and that's kind of what we hope to do and continue on."


At 6:30 p.m. Monday, players and members of the community will get to meet Pritchard in a public meeting at the high school.

"I'm ready to get to PBL and put a lot of work in and work with the community members to continue to keep this tradition alive," Pritchard said. "I hope they're ready to work with me."

"We're excited to get him here and for him to get started," Niebuhr added. "We look forward to what he can bring to our football program."