How the return of 2 defenders sparked Pana's unbeaten high school football season
PANA — Brenden Schoonover’s smile still hasn’t diminished.
The Pana senior wide receiver/cornerback was all smiles after snaring three interceptions last week in a 27-13 victory over Carlinville to claim the outright South Central Conference title and finish the regular season undefeated at 9-0.
Schoonover and the Panthers hope to have more to smile about in the postseason. They begin the Class 2A playoffs as the No. 2 seed and welcome No. 15 Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond (5-4) at 7 p.m. on Friday.
“I’m incredibly proud of all of our guys — our players, our coaching staff,” said senior defensive end Drew Hackler. “We’re like a big family. We knew that the hard work we put in was going to pay off. To see it actually happen is an incredible feeling. But the job’s not done yet. We’re still aiming for a state championship, that’s our goal. Once we get there, then we’ll be satisfied.”
The Panthers finished the regular season with three straight victories over playoff opponents — Greenville (68-21), Nokomis (17-0) and Carlinville — while generating 10 turnovers the past two weeks under defensive coordinator Ryan Lipe.
Pana recorded two interceptions and three crucial fumble recoveries in a muddy affair against Nokomis’ Wing-T. Pana followed that with five INTs against Carlinville’s passing frenzy.
“Our defense has definitely come up big,” said Hackler, who smothered NHS with 15 tackles (two for loss) and two fumble recoveries. “We're really coming together as a whole and making stops when we need them, especially in the turnover department with having five picks in Carlinville. They were big and put us in a good position to win the game.”
Schoonover said that defensive prowess has been around since their JFL days.
“It’s very balanced, I’d say,” Schoonover said. “Our defense just always clicks.”
It may be surprising that Hackler and Schoonover both skipped football sophomore year to focus more on basketball and baseball.
They returned for the shortened spring season bigger and stronger. Hackler said he jumped from about 6-foot and 175 pounds as a freshman to 6-3 and 210 as a senior. Schoonover likewise grew several inches to 5-10 and 160 pounds. That bigger size led them to come back.
“We thought really that we had lost them for good their sophomore year when they decided not to come out and both just talked about wanting to focus on basketball and baseball,” Pana coach Trevor Higgins said. “We had conversations with them and told them they’re always welcome on our team and they’re always welcome to be part of the family. But if they don’t want to play, they don’t want to play.”
Schoonover vaguely recalled Hackler talking him into doing football again.
“It was a package deal at that point,” Hackler said. “We’re both glad we came out our junior years and could help the team out.”
The duo didn’t miss a beat – Schoonover in particular. He chalked up a school-record six interceptions in five games over the spring.
“That kid’s just pure athleticism and speed, so even if he does make a mistake on the field, he can usually catch up for them,” Higgins said of Schoonover. “I think he showed in Carlinville, if you throw at him a few times that he’s going to pick it off every once in a while. That’s why he hasn’t really been thrown at a lot.”
Schoonover picked off the Cavaliers on their first offensive play of the game.
“I think I’m quick,” Schoonover said. “I think I can guard a few people. I don’t think I’m big enough to play linebacker and I don’t think I’m quite big enough to play line either, so I think cornerback works out pretty perfect.”
His athleticism perhaps stems from basketball. Schoonover runs point guard on the basketball team while Hackler takes up space in the post. Both play in the outfield for baseball.
Hackler described each other as best buds.
“He plays the post really well and we’ve been playing basketball forever,” Schoonover said. “I’ve got a hoop in my backyard, so we used to always play.”
PROVIDING A SPARK
Hackler said his strength and conditioning particularly improved over the summer with athletic trainer Drew Casner. That has allowed him to get off the ball quicker and overpower offensive linemen.
He currently has 77 tackles this season, including team-highs 15 for loss and five sacks. Senior inside linebacker Kyle Kuhn leads the defense with 106 tackles, eight for loss.
Schoonover currently has five INTs this season. He also has 16 receptions for 327 yards and five TDs as a slot receiver.
He said that offensive production was simply a result of more playing time and nothing to do with re-learning the playbook after missing a year.
“We wouldn’t be the same team without him,” Hackler said of Schoonover. “He’s an absolute beast. He’s an incredible athlete and he’s able to make plays. He does everything that we need him to on both sides of the ball. He’s a big time player – makes big time plays at big time games.”
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