PAXTON — Paxton-Buckley-Loda is going to the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.
The Panthers clinched their postseason berth with a 43-15 win over Watseka.
"Getting back to the playoffs is an extraordinary feeling," PBL senior Hunter Anderson said. “I’m excited to move on to next week. The season’s not over. We’ve got to focus on Dwight.”
The Panthers will face Dwight on the road in their regular-season finale.
“We wish we would have clinched last week, but anytime you can get to six, you guarantee yourself in," PBL head coach Josh Pritchard said. "Now we’re playing for seeding, so we hope we can go get our seventh win. They need to be extremely proud of themselves because that Watseka’s team is actually a really good team, but we’re a little bigger school than they are. They gave us trouble in the first half, and our kids showed up in the second half.”
The Panthers (6-2, 4-1 Sangamon Valley Conference) outscored Watseka 27-0 in the second half.
“Our second half was way better than our first half," Anderson said. "Sometimes, we don’t start out the way we want, but we always find a way to bounce back and compete in the second half again.”
A 60-yard touchdown pass from Gunner Belt to Jarred Gronsky resulted in PBL's first second-half score with 9:29 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers started that run from its own 11-yard line, with Anderson gaining 15 yards on a run on the first play. After a 1-yard run by Anderson, Gronsky caught a pass on second-and-9 that moved the ball to PBL's own 36-yard line. Belt ran for four yards and Schrodt was tackled by Watseka's Bryce Denoyer for no gain before Gronsky's touchdown reception.
After Watseka's Drew Wittenborn threw an incomplete pass on the first play of the Warrior's ensuing possession, Wittenborn scrambled for two yards on first down. Brayden Haines then caught a pass for a first down, moving the ball to the Watseka 49-yard line.
Cluver ran for three yards before scampering for a first down on the next play. After Conner Curry caught a pass for two yards, Drake Schrodt sacked Wittenborn on second down.
The defense recorded two sacks in the second half en route to shutting out the Warriors (5-3, 2-3). An incomplete pass on third-and-17 forced the Warriors to punt.
“In the first half, we felt like we were getting to the quarterback and making him scramble, but he was doing a great job of avoiding our rush and finding receivers who were open, and they were extending drives,” PBL head coach Josh Pritchard said. “At halftime, we really got into our defensive back and said, ‘Once he starts scrambling, we’ve got to glue on (the receivers) and play man-to-man across.’ We wanted to bring more pressure, and we just kept bringing more pressure. We kept getting to him, and finally could bring him down in the backfield, which is something we really needed to do because if not, he could zing it all day long to his athletic wide receivers.”
Anderson ran for 52 yards on the first play of the Panthers' ensuing possession, moving the ball to Watseka's 32-yard line. Belt then ran for six yards on the next play before Schrodt scampered for seven yards to put the ball in the red zone.
After plunging for four yards on first down, Anderson ran for his second touchdown of the game from 15 yards out with 4:19 left in the third quarter.
“I’m very proud of these kids. We rode our seniors hard. Hunter Anderson really carried the load this game and did a phenomenal job of doing that," Pritchard said. "I thought our offensive line played great. That hasn’t always been the bright spot of what we’ve had. We’ve been able to chuck the ball, and our receivers had made some plays, but our run game finally got going, and I want to give a shoutout to our linemen and Hunter Anderson carrying the ball well this week.”
Clayton Robidoux recovered the following kickoff, giving PBL the ball back on Watseka's 33-yard line. Two plays after Belt ran for seven yards on third down, a plunge by Schrodt on third-and-1 moved the ball to the 20-yard line.
After Anderson ran for two yards and Gronsky gained three yards on a reverse to the left side, Anderson was tackled by Justin Bunting for a loss of two yards on third down.
Denoyer then sacked Belt on fourth-and-7, giving Watseka the ball back on its own 19-yard line. Curry ran for two yards and Bunting was tackled by Colton Coy for a 1-yard gain on a reception on second down.
An incomplete pass, on which Coy deflected the pass as he blitzed Wittenborn, forced the Warriors to punt, giving PBL the ball back on Watseka's 37-yard line. Belt ran for one yards and Anderson plunged for two yards before the Panthers were called for a false start and were forced to punt via an incomplete pass on third-and-12.
Belt's pooch punt, however, was downed by Coplea on the Watseka 3-yard line.
On the next play, Drew Diesburg intercepted a pass to put the ball on the Warriors' 22-yard line.
Following an incomplete pass, Anderson ran for 14 yards on second down.
After a 3-yard run by Anderson and a couple of 2-yard plunges by Schrodt, PBL scored on fourth-and-goal as Schrodt bulldozed the ball into the end zone with 6:51 left in the fourth quarter.
Gunner Belt scored on an 8-yard run to cap PBL's opening possession, which produced 92 yards on nine plays, including a 38-yard run by Hunter Anderson.
The Panthers won the coin toss, but chose to defer to the second half.
Wittenborn ran for eight yards on the first play from scrimmage, but Curry was tackled by Anderson on a tackle for a loss of four yards on a screen pass.
After PBL was called for encroachment, Alex Rueck tackled Jameson Cluver for a loss of one yard on third-and-1, forcing Watseka to punt to PBL's own 8-yard line.
Anderson ran for seven yards, Schrodt ran for one yard and Belt scampered to the Panthers' own 21-yard line for a first down prior to Anderson's long run. After three more runs by Anderson moved the ball to the Watseka 26-yard line, Gronsky gained 18 yards on a screen pass.
Belt scored on the next play before running for a two-point conversion that extended PBL's lead to 8-0 with 6:59 left in the first quarter.
Watseka scored on its ensuing possession -- which included a 48-yard screen pass from Drew Wittenborn to Jameson Cluver -- via a 9-yard touchdown run by Conner Curry with 5:29 left in the first quarter.
Dalton Busboom sacked Wittenborn on the first play of the drive, but Cluver's screen pass moved the ball to PBL's 20-yard line. Curry ran for two yards before Haines caught a pass to move the ball to the 9-yard line the play prior to Curry's touchdown.
About one minute after Curry's touchdown, Anderson scored on a 49-yard touchdown run to extend PBL's lead to 16-7. Belt ran for a first down on second-and-8 from PBL's own 36-yard line prior to Anderson's touchdown.
"I saw the hole and I just had to go," Anderson said. “I feel like that long touchdown helped. Our offensive line blocked extremely well all night. The receivers caught passes when we needed to.”
Watseka answered with a 41-yard scoring connection from Wittenborn to Maddux Rigsby that cut Watseka's deficit to 16-15 with 2:06 left in the opening quarter.
From there, both teams were shut out for the rest of the first half.
“I felt like we drove right down the field and scored in the first quarter. In the second quarter, we kind of stalled out," Pritchard said. "We came out in the second half – I challenged our kids. We’ve talked about it all year – you have to win both halves. I don’t care what the score is – we win both halves. That kind of made the score bigger than what it really was, but our kids just kept running the football and started chewing clock. Anytime we can run the football, we’ve got a good chance to win the game.”
The Panthers moved the ball near the red zone on their ensuing possession, but Brayden Haines recovered a Belt fumble on Watseka's own 14-yard line.
It ended a 15-play drive, which started with a PBL holding penalty. On first-and-19, Schrodt ran for no gain before Belt threw an incomplete pass before Anderson gained 16 yards on third-and-19.
The Warriors then committed an offsides penalty that gave PBL a first down on its own 45-yard line. Belt ran for three yards and Anderson tallied three more yards on second down before Schrodt gave PBL a first down via a run on a direct snap, moving the ball to Watseka's 43-yard line.
Belt ran for a loss of three yards before Diesburg caught a screen pass for six yards. After Watseka was called for an encroachment penalty, Belt ran for a first down to Watseka's 28-yard line. Haines' fumble recovery followed an incomplete pass and an encroachment penalty on the Warriors on second-and-10.
Coplea broke up a pass intended for Curry on first down. After another incomplete pass, Curry caught a pass to move the ball to Watseka's own 26-yard line.
Busboom tackled Cluver on two straight running plays that totaled one yards.
On third-and-9, Bunting caught a pass from Wittenborn to move the ball to the Warriors' own 49-yard line.
Denoyer ran for a yard and Curry ran for five yards before Curry dropped a pass on third-and-4, forcing Watseka to punt to PBL's 7-yard line.
After runs by Belt and Anderson each produced three yards, Belt ran for a first down on third-and-4, moving the ball to the Panthers' own 23-yard line.
Schrodt gained six yards on a screen pass, but Belt was tackled by Denoyer for a loss of two yads on second down.
On third-and-6, Belt overthrew Gronsky on a deep pass, forcing PBL to punt to Watseka's 32-yard line.
After Cluver gained three yards on a screen pass before Gronsky broke up a pass intended for Haines on second-and-7. On third down, Busboom and Coy tackled Denoyer on a 5-yard pass play.
On fourth-and-2, a running-into-the kicker penalty and unsportsmanlike conduct penalty moved the ball to PBL's 30-yard line with 56.3 seconds left in the first half.
After an incomplete pass from Curry intended for Haines, an illegal-block-in-the-back penalty was called on Watseka. After Ethan LaBelle caught a pass for 11 yards on second-and-26, Alex Rueck sacked Wittenborn on third-and-15, forcing Watseka to punt with 5.5 seconds remaining in the half.
With Panthers up 37-15, Coy sacked Wittenborn for a loss of five yards following Schrodt's touchdown plunge.
Haines caught a pass for eight yards before Coplea broke up a pass attempt on third-and-7. On fourth-and-7, Wittenborn threw another incomplete pass as Robidoux hit him as he tossed the ball, giving PBL the ball back at Watseka's 37-yard line.
Anderson ran for two yards and Schrodt gained three yards each on a screen pass on second down and a run on third-and-5. On fourth-and-2, Belt connected with Coplea for a 29-yard touchdown with 3:11 left in the game.
“In the fourth quarter, they started bringing a ton of pressure on the inside, and we couldn’t get our power game going, so we knew that they were going to sell out," Pritchard said. "We chucked one and got a completion.”
Ben Busby recovered the ensuing kickoff, giving PBL the ball back.
“I think they thought we onside kicked, but we squib kick most of the game. Fortunately, we recovered that one. That’s not what we were trying to do. It just bounced off their kid’s chest, and our kids fell on it. I’m never going to stop telling our kids to play hard. That’s never going to happen. I’m glad we played until the end of the game," Pritchard said.
“We got everybody in. Our seniors got to play. We got seniors that are making plays who normally don’t start the game. It was a tremendous team effort. I’m extremely proud and happy that we’re officially in the playoffs.”
PBL 43, Watseka 15
WAT 15 0 0 0 -- 15
PBL 16 0 14 13 -- 43
P -- Belt 8 run (Belt run)
W -- Curry 9 run (Pavlak kick)
P -- Anderson 49 run (Belt run)
W -- Rigsby 41 pass from Wittenborn (Haines run)
P -- Gronsky 60 pass from Belt (pass failed)
P -- Anderson 15 run (Coplea run)
P -- Schrodt 1 run (Wilson kick)
P -- Coplea 29 pass from Belt (kick failed)