CATLIN -- With a 42-0 win over Salt Fork, Paxton-Buckley-Loda is eligible for its sixth straight playoff appearance.
"Playoffs are always fun," PBL junior Gavin Coplea said. "Hopefully, we can clinch it with a sixth win."
Up next for the Panthers are the Class 2A state-ranked Comets of Clifton Central (6-0), who defeated 1A-ranked Watseka 33-7. In week eight, PBL will face Watseka (5-1) at home.
"We're happy we're eligible, but our goal is to win the conference title," PBL head coach Josh Pritchard said. "We've got some teams that are realy good and are going to to different things offensively that are going to give us trouble. We' just hope we can put a game plan together and make big plays."
In the first half, Gunner Belt connected with Coplea for two touchdown passes covering a combined 168 yards. Belt would finish the game setting a single-game school record as he completed 7-of-11 passes for 289 yards while Coplea set a single-game school record as well with 207 yards on three touchdown catches.
After Coplea tallied the Panthers' first score via an 82-yard reception, Jarred Gronsky intercepted a pass and returned the pick to the Storm's 39-yard line to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Drake Schrodt that extended PBL's lead to 14-0 with 4:57 left in the first quarter.
On Salt Fork's opening possession, it went three-and-out after Payton Taylor returned the kickoff to PBL's 48-yard line. Colton Coy tackled Tate Johnson for a 1-yard gain on first down before Payton Taylor ran for four yards on second down, and Kieler Bennett threw an incomplete pass on third-and-5, forcing the storm to punt to the Panthers' 16-yard line.
Prior to Gronsky's interception, Ben Jessup caught a pass for a 20-yard gain and Johnson ran for two yards before Keegan Marty recorded a tackle for loss of three yards on a quarterback keeper on the play prior to Gronsky's interception.
Following the pick, Gronsky ran for a 23-yard gain, moving the ball to the 16-yard line. After a 9-yard run by Hunter Anderson, Gronsky made a reception on second-and-1, getting the ball to the 1-yard line prior to Schrodt's scoring plunge.
Salt Fork (4-2) drove into the red zone on its ensuing possession, but lost a fumble that was recovered by the Panthers (5-1) on their own 14-yard line.
From the Storm's own 35-yard line, Johnson and Taylor each ran for four yards on first and second down, respectively, Johnson then ran for a first down to Salt Fork's own 47-yard line. Taylor then scampered for another four yards before Gronsky broke up a pass attempt on second down.
On third-and-6, Johnson ran for four yards. On fourth-and-2, Johnson ran for 16 yards before taking another carry for six yards. On second-and-4 from the PBL 25-yard line, a Johnson run, accompanied by a facemask penalty on the Panthers, moved the ball to the 17-yard line as the first quarter came to an end.
Dalton Busboom tackled Johnson for a loss of three yards on the first play of the second quarter. Taylor gained seven yards on a screen pass before Salt Fork's fumble on third-and-6.
On the play following the fumble recovery, Belt and Coplea connected for an 86-yard touchdown.
"I was just doing my job," Coplea said. "Gunner put the ball right on, and I was playing my hardest to get into the end zone."
Following two rushing attempts totaling a gain of six yards, Bennett was stopped short of the first-down marker on a quarterback keeper. Another rushing attempt was stopped short on fourth-and-2 via a Clayton Robidoux tackle, giving PBL the ball back at midfield.
Hunter Anderson extended PBL's lead to 28-0 via a 24-yard touchdown run with 5:35 left in the second quarter.
An Anderson run for four yards started the scoring drive before Gronsky caught a screen pass for seven yards for a first down. An Anderson run, combined with a facemask penalty by Salt Fork, resulted in nine yards before a rushing attempt by Belt resulted in a first down prior to Anderson's scoring run.
The Storm and Panthers traded three-and-out possessions before Salt Fork took over at its own 36-yard line. Johnson ran on a sweep to the right side for a first down on third-and-8 to move the ball to PBL's 48-yard line.
Two plays later, another sweep to the right side by Johnson on second-and-5 moved the ball to the 36-yard line. After a 5-yard run by Johnson, he scampered on a sweep left on second down, but was tackled by Anderson and Drew Diesburg for a loss of one yard.
Following an incomplete pass, Brady Tevebaugh missed a 50-yard field-goal attempt, giving PBL the ball back on its own 20-yard line.
Anderson caught a screen pass on second-and-10 for 38 yards to move the ball to the Storm's 42-yard line with 10.7 seconds remaining in the first half. Two hail-mary passes then fell incomplete as the half came to an end.
Anderson scored his second rushing touchdown on PBL's first possession of the second half.
After Zac Jayne returned the second-half kickoff to PBL's own 31-yard line for the Panthers, Diesburg caught a pass on third-and-11 to move the ball to the 43-yard line. After Belt ran for two yards, he completed a screen pass to Drake Schrodt to move the ball to Salt Fork's 46-yard line.
After Schrodt ran the ball for another 12 yards, Anderson scored from 34 yards out with 8:15 left in the third quarter.
Keegan Marty recovered a fumble on the first play of the Storm's ensuing possession. On the second play of the Panthers' next possession, Coplea scored his third touchdown on a 39-yard reception from Belt to extend PBL's lead to 42-0 with 8:15 left in the third quarter, putting the running clock into play.
"We hit some big plays early, and we spread the ball around," PBL head coach Josh Pritchard said. "(Gavin's) just a big-play kid. He's not even our leading receiver in catches. We continue to get more kids in the football game. The more kids we can get the football in their hands, the better we're going to be. He hope we continue to do that."
It was the fourth time this season that the Panthers scored more than 40 points in a game.
"I really like (our offense)," Coplea said. "Coach Pritchard's done a lot of good things, and it seemed to click most of the year."
Landon Wilson made the ensuing extra-point attempts. He would make all four of his extra-point kick attempts while PBL went 1-for-2 on two-point conversion attempts as Belt ran the ball into the end zone following Coplea's first score.
Marty's fumble recovery was the third turnover forced by a PBL defense that pitched its second shutout of the season.
"Pitching shutouts is not an easy thing to do," Pritchard said. "We forced turnovers. We put them out of their game as best as we could. Our size and numbers pretty much took over that game, and that's what we have to do as a Class 3A program when you're playing a 1A program. I know (Salt Fork's) not happy about it, but I don't put the schedule together. I just play the games that they line up for me. We just have a lot more kids to choose from. I know it is rough for them. I still think that is a team that is going to be in the playoffs."
Wyatt Hollen, Ben Busby and Tyler Smith tackled Johnson for a 1-yard loss on the first play of Salt Fork's ensuing possession. A 6-yard run was followed by an incomplete pass on third down that forced the Storm to punt.
With the Panthers' No. 2 offense on the field, two rushing attempts by Jayne was followed by a rushing attempt by Smith on third-and-2 that moved the ball to PBL's own 33-yard line. Levi Frichtl caught a screen pass for four yards before Jayne scampered toward Salt Fork's 27-yard line as the third quarter came to an end.
After an 8-yard run by Jayne on first down, Smith was stopped for a 4-yard loss on second-and-2. On the next play, Mason Bruns scampered along the left side for what would have been a touchdown, but it was called back due to a penalty.
After Bruns ran for nine yards on third-and-10. On fourth-and-inches, Smith was tackled in the backfield after recovering a fumbled snap in midair.
Both teams traded three-and-outs before the Storm ended the game via another three-and-out.
PBL 42, Salt Fork 0
PBL 14 14 14 0 -- 42
SF 0 0 0 0 -- 0
P -- Coplea 82 pass from Belt (Belt run)
P -- Schrodt 1 run (pass failed)
P -- Coplea 86 pass from Belt (Wilson kick)
P -- Anderson 24 run (Wilson kick)
P -- Anderson 34 run (Wilson kick)
P -- Coplea 39 pass from Belt (Wilson kick)