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A Little More Toughness Could Take These Panthers a Long Way
Before the season started, with quarterback Joe Haase and fullback Trey McColley, complimented by a fast defense, I told everyone who would listen that the Knightstown Panthers would go 7-2 at worst this season. I said repeatedly that if they stayed healthy, the Panthers could run the regular season table undefeated.
But if you would have told me before the season started that the Panthers would lose McColley and Haase in the season opener, I would have told you the team wouldn’t win two games.
Those guys are very good at what they do on both sides of the ball, and they were the main ingredient that separated the Panthers from the rest of the schedule.
But Haase is gone for the season, McColley’s return is doubtful, and for the most part, both have been unavailable since halftime of the season opener against Centerville.
Yet there stand the Panthers, 4-3 and winners of two straight against rivals Shenandoah and Tri High. The biggest reason for that is Coach Bob Prescott and his Panther staff. Never before have I seen so much gotten out of so little.
Then again, this has been one very strange season. Centerville is 6-1, with their only loss coming against Knightstown. Eastern Hancock is 1-6, with their only victory coming against Knightstown. Losing McColley and Haase didn’t just leave big shoes to fill for Prescott. Those injuries almost emptied out the entire wardrobe.
I’m reminded of the 1974 football season, in which the Panthers got off to a 5-0 start before losing all-conference option quarterback Galen Thomas to a broken collar bone. The team finished 5-5.
In 1977 the Panthers bolted out of the gates at 6-0 with a top 10 ranking and lost starting quarterback Kirk Hochstedler. They finished the season 7-3 and missed qualifying for the playoffs.
Then in 2004, Knightstown got off to a 4-0 start before losing all-state running back Matt Cox. They finished 4-6.
Sometimes one star player can make a major difference. This year, it wasn’t one star player. It was two of the best in the state in Class 2A. They were the team leaders on both sides of the ball. But there has been an exception to the downfall of the ’74, ’77 and ’04 teams.
In 1973, Knightstown fielded what history shows was at least one of the best three teams the Panthers have ever had. Like the 1997 Panthers, those players were tough guys. But that roster included what I call throwback players … guys who didn’t want to leave the game no matter what their injuries.
The team went 9-1 (there were no playoffs), and lost starting fullback Tony Butcher, who was every bit as important to them as McColley is to today’s Panthers. They also lost defensive end Eugene Litton, who I believe was one of the two best defensive players ever to don a Panther uniform.
Butcher had a broken leg. Litton had a dislocated shoulder. Both, seriously, wanted to continue playing.
Despite the top offensive and defensive players going down with season-ending injuries, Knightstown won the rest of its games without them.
That was because the rest of the team elevated itself to “tough guy” status. Jon Strader, my other best defensive player in the school’s history, and John Ottinger, another throw-back tough guy, led a legendary defensive front that include monsters Doug Plank, Bill Magee, Darl Nigh and Bob Lines. They averaged 235 pounds, very big for that time, and were all quick. They were a nightmare because they were all tough guys.
Fast-forward to today. Here the Panthers are, 4-3 in a season they could easily be 0-7, or if healthy, 7-0.
Under the circumstances, the job Coach Prescott has done with this year’s Panther football team is deserving of Regional Coach of the Year honors. He has somehow managed to get this group of injury-prone, mistake-prone, temperamental youngsters to play together and overcome the turnovers and mental lapses to become a pretty good team.
Friday night the Panthers will likely face the best offensive attack they’ve seen all season, which doesn’t bode well for a team that is averaging just 12 points per game on offense. Their best outing, 34 points against Wes-Del, included two defensive touchdowns.
But the last two weeks the Panther defense has allowed just two touchdowns. One came on a 68-yard passing play.
Defense is the strength of Knightstown’s football team. Defense is the weakness of Lapel’s. The Bulldogs gave up 63 points to Clinton Prairie (6-1), a team that was averaging 38 points per game, and 56 points to Guerin Catholic (1-6), who was averaging less than 10 per game on offense. That should mean there will be scoring opportunities for the Panthers.
The Panthers over-achieved last year under Prescott, and they are doing so again this season. But there’s more work to be done, and Lapel is the perfect measuring stick.
The best part is, Friday night there will be special guests of honor. The 1997 state runner-up Panthers will be on hand, and save the ’73 Panthers, were the most vicious, smash-mouth group of Panthers ever to emerge from the jungle.
They didn’t just hit people; they made opposing players not want to go back on the field. They had an imposing presence and an aura about them. They punished opposing teams to the point that by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the other team just wanted the game to be over.
Like that 1973 team, the 1997 Panthers had heart, but they never took prisoners.
Here’s to hoping some of that unforgiving toughness rubs off on this year’s Panthers Friday night. It looks to me like that’s all that’s missing.
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