CATLIN -- Both head coaches know what is at stake as the Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Salt Fork football teams face off at 7 p.m. Friday.
Each team will enter the game with a 4-1 record, meaning the winner will be playoff-eligible.
"That makes it big for anybody because if we can get to that win No. 5, that makes us one step closer to get to that sixth win, which is what everybody's really looking for," PBL head coach Josh Pritchard said.
As of week five, PBL is in the No. 12 ranking in Class 3A on the IHSA's playoff outlook. The Panthers' 23 tiebreaker points are the third-most among all schools in 3A.
Meanwhile, Salt Fork is in the No. 16 ranking in 1A. The Storm's 21 tiebreaker points are the seventh-most among all schools in 1A.
"It'd be really nice to get that fifth win and make yourself playoff eligible," Salt Fork head coach Joe Hageman said. "I always would rather have six to guarantee us the playoffs, but obviously, getting that fifth win is huge."
At least for PBL, there is a sense of urgency to get that fifth win as its game against Salt Fork precedes play two straight games against undefeated teams.
The Panthers will face SVC foes Clifton Central and Watseka in weeks seven and eight, respectively.
"It's a huge game for our kids because we know we have two teams in our conference who are really good coming up right after that, so we've got to get as many wins out there as we can because we don't know how many more we're going to have," Pritchard said.
Clifton Central, PBL and Watseka are all undefeated in the SVC. Clifton Central will host Watseka this upcoming Friday.
"I think all three of us are pretty good teams," Pritchard said. "Hopefully, after we play each other, we can make a nice run in the playoffs because we'll probably get stuck in different classes, which is good, bur our goal right now is just to win week six, and then we'll go from there and worry about a different team after that."
The Panthers enter their game against Salt Fork on a four-game winning streak, but are facing an opponent that is currently above the .500 mark for the first time since their week one loss via 32-8 score to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (4-1).
Since then, PBL won 52-12 Georgetown-Ridge Farm (1-4), 50-0 over Iroquois West (1-4), 22-18 over Seneca (2-3) and 44-7 over Momence (1-4).
"It's obviously going to be a tough one. We have to play well," Pritchard said. "We just hope that we can score points like we have been, and we have to try to continue to shut down people defensively."
All of Salt Fork's victories were against below-.500 teams as well. After a 38-14 win over South Beloit, the Storm lost 35-7 to Watseka (5-0) and won 21-16 over G-RF (1-4), 34-13 over Westville (1-4) and 46-0 over Oblong/Palestine-Hutsonville (0-5).
"I think (PBL) a great football team," Hageman said. "They're well-coached. I'm very impressed with their offensive linemen. I think they're big and physical up front, and they have nice skill kids to go with it."
One way PBL hopes to play up to a bigger challenge is to try to put together a 48-minute game.
"We haven't really done that yet this year," Pritchard said. "Our goal is to play hard for 48 minutes. Our kids are playing really hard. It's just a matter of finishing drives and doing what we're taught, and I think our kids are going to get there. I think this coaching staff has really done a few things this weekend to, hopefully, put us on the right track for that."
The PBL defense has allowed more than one offensive touchdown in only one of its four victories.
"They're very aggressive," Hageman said. "They do a good job in their scheme of trying to take away the other team's best options. For us, I think it's a really hard matchup against a good 3A school. Being a 1A school, that's a hard matchup when you get a good 3A school like PBL is."
Two standouts that caught Hageman's eye on his film of PBL were linebackers Dalton Busboom and Clayton Robidoux, who also each play on the offensive line.
"They have nice size. They're big kids," Hageman said. "Defensively, they're very aggressive. They're good tacklers. For offensive linemen, they look like really athletic kids. Sometimes, you don't assume that about an offensive linemen, but when I look at those two, I see really good athletes."
Gunner Belt threw for three touchdown passes in each of PBL's last two games. Against Iroquois West in week three, Belt had two touchdown runs and a couple of scoring passes.
"I think he does a really good job of running their offense," Hageman said. "They're very multi-dimensional -- they have a lot of formations and do a lot of things -- and I think he does a really good job of running that offense and distributing the ball where it needs to go."
Gavin Coplea has caught three touchdown passes in the two games, and has impressed Hageman with his play at defensive back as well.
"He's not only a great receiver, but a good defensive back for them," Hageman said.
Pritchard knows his defense will need to face Salt Fork's running game.
"They've got a couple of kids who really run the ball hard," Pritchard said. "They want to run the football first, so if we can't stop the run, we're going to be in for a long game. Luckily, we've done that in the last two weeks, but we just hope that we can continue that. Hopefully, we don't give up some big drive over and over again. We have to contain them. They've been running this offense for many years, so we just hope that we can slow them down and try to get the ball back for us."
Tate Johnson rumbled for a game-high 178 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 17 carries to lift the Storm to a VVC win in week four. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound running back also had 78 rushing yards last Friday against O/P-H.
"He runs really hard," Pritchard said.
Payton Taylor, a 6-1, 205-pound fullback rushed for two touchdowns and made 10 tackles to lead the Storm in week three.
"He's just a load," Pritchard said.
Salt Fork brought back four offensive linemen who played a lot last year, even if they had not started on a consistent basis.
"I think they've done a nice job of meshing together so far this year, and that's given us an opportunity to be successful," Hageman said.
Josh Miller corralled 10 tackles to help Salt Fork limit Oblong/Palestine-Hutsonville to 60 yards of total offense last Friday. In week four, Colden Earles, Payton Taylor, Josh Miller and Ethan McLain each made six tackles for Salt Fork, which kept Westville off the scoreboard until the fourth quarter.
"We've been able to take away what other teams like to do well," Hageman said. "We struggled with Watseka, obviously, but in the other four games, I think our kids did a good job of taking away what the other team wants to do."
It will be the second straight year that PBL and Salt Fork met each other in week six via the Sangamon Valley/Vermilion Valley cross-conference agreement. They will not play each other next year.
"I have mixed feelings. Given the fact that we're so young this year, it's probably a bad matchup this year," Hageman said. "Last year, when we had a lot more experience, I felt like it was a lot better game to kind of test ourselves. This year, with some of the young kids we're playing, I feel like it's maybe not quite as good for us."
Last year, the Panthers beat a then-undefeated Salt Fork team 51-27.
"It's cool that we see different teams every few years," Pritchard said. "PBL really laid it to them, and I know those kids probably remember that down at Salt Fork, and I'm sure they're trying to return the favor, so we've got to get our kids focused and ready to play because I guarantee those kids are going to be extremely focused and ready to play. I know they're hoping they can put it on us. We just hope we can stop them and score points in bunches like we have."