Boys made breakthrough

Bryan Veginski
Another try in ’09: Washington freshman Isaac Fisher, No. 7, and junior Justin Riley, No. 24, are two players who figure to play integral roles on next year’s football team. The Panthers were 10-2 and 6-1 in the Mid-Illini Conference.

It was an extraordinary season for the Washington football team.

With a nine-game winning streak, the Panthers were just the third squad in program history to reach the state quarterfinals and the fourth to record 10 wins.

Washington went 10-2 on the year and was ranked seventh in the final Associated Press Class 5A state poll.

Both of the Panthers’ setbacks were to Metamora, which Saturday pursues its second straight state championship.

“I thought the kids did a great job,” WCHS head coach Darrell Crouch said. “We found a way to win a lot of games this year.”

Washington has a nice core of players returning, especially at the skill positions, but will experience some losses on the offensive and defensive lines.

“We’ll have to have guys step up there,” Crouch said.

Players such as first-team all-Mid-Illini Conference center Andrew Gundy and Jacob Weston, a second-team all-league offensive tackle, will have to be replaced.

Athletes who were talented and quality leaders also will depart. First-team all-conference receiver Chase Catton, second-team all-M-I linebacker Cody Meeks, Brett Cook, Bobby Miller and Jordan Miller are among those who will leave voids.

Nick Brunk was one of the Panthers’ most improved players and landed a spot on the first-team all-league defense in the secondary.

First-team all-conference picks as juniors, Justin Riley (running back) and Colton Underwood (defensive line) and second-team selection Drew Schlink (quarterback) all are 2009 returnees.

Combined with underclass teams that posted a combined 13-5 record, Washington has an opportunity for another big year.

“If they work hard, the future is still bright,” said Crouch.

Zach Little and Isaac Fisher, who intercepted three passes and returned them 111 yards in the playoffs, are two freshmen who gained experience at quarterback.

Along with junior Marshall Escue and Schlink, there are a lot of possibilities at the position next fall.

Crouch identified the 21-0 win Sept. 19 at Dunlap as a season highlight.

It was the first victory over the Eagles in his four seasons with the Panthers.

Washington also got past the second-round playoff hurdle with a 28-14 triumph at Dunlap Nov. 8.

The Panthers rallying to win Oct. 10 vs. Morton (31-16) and Oct. 17 at East Peoria (27-23) also demonstrated the team’s drive for success.

Crouch still remains focused on winning a state title at Washington.

“It’s been done in our conference and our school, so it’s not an unreachable dream,” he said.

 The Panthers desire to get bigger and stronger and faster to try to motor past their biggest obstacle — Metamora.

Washington’s ’09 schedule will remain the same with the locations reversed, meaning five regular-season games at Babcook Field.

The season was grand for Riley, who recorded 1,002 rushing yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry.

Underwood racked up 809 yards with a sturdy 5.6 yards per attempt.

Schlink showed his mobility as a QB with 494 yards on an average of 5.4 per carry.

The trio combined for 32 of the Panthers’ 41 touchdowns, with Riley reaching the end zone 16 times.

Overall, Washington compiled 2,758 yards on the ground, nearly doubling their foes’ 1,493.

Catton led Panther receivers with 21 catches for 304 yards. He had four TDs before sustaining a season-ending knee injury at East Peoria.

Nick Brunk also was in double figures with 10 receptions.

Schlink threw for 570 yards with seven TDs against just three interceptions.

Brunk was the Washington leader with 72.5 total tackles.

Weston (57), Cook (56), Colton Underwood (46.5), Connor Underwood (42.5) and Bobby Miller (42) all registered at least 40 tackles.

Colton Underwood punished opponents with 18 of the Panthers’ 42 sacks and eight tackles for a loss.

Cook paced Washington with nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and Weston added six.

Connor Underwood notched five sacks, while Catton and Brunk picked off two passes apiece.