Centralia’s football Panthers returned to their winning ways Friday night on Miller Field when they dominated the visiting Van-Far Indians in the first round of the district playoffs.
Breaking up Indian plays beneath a starless, black sky, the Panthers took a quarter to warm up then gave the crowd demonstration of the 2017 version of Panther power football.
A defense, led by Gus Stidham’s nine total tackles, along with Chris Hicks six and Grafton Littrell’s five drove the Van-Far running game into the Miller Field turf. Preliminary game stats show the Indians with a negative 10 rushing yards.
Centralia’s offense led by Panther quarterback Clayton Simkins went through the Indian defense like Bonezai the Basset Hound through an order of Hog Haven smoked sausages.
Simkins was 11 for 16 in the passing department, connecting with Nick Wheaton, Guy Moran and Stidham for 99 yards, including one 35-yard touchdown pass to Wheaton.
When not showing of their growing passing game, the Panther rushed, and rushed. They took 281 yards on the ground, 379 total.
Trey Owens led the rush to the Van-Far goal line with 83 yards, scoring three touchdowns along the way. Simkins and Davenport each rushed in for a touchdown, taking 82 and 53 yards respectively.
Freshman kicker Luke Hunter and his right foot were also an important ingredient to Panther Head Coach Jim Newstead’s victory stew. Hunter was five for five for extra points now. “We have a kicker again,” Newsted said afterward.
One observer agreed. Noting that Bradley Kaiser has been stepping up to fill the “big back” shoes left open by Tyler Dorman’s injury, Hunter, he said was filling the other part of the Dorman equation. “In the topic of Dorman impersonators, a kicker is born with Luke Hunter. It looks great driving the ball inside the opposing 10 on kickoffs and splitting uprights on extra points.”
Newsted had a lot to say after the win. Lining up his now 6-4 Panthers on the 15-yard line, seniors kneeling in front, he told them to look north down the slowly emptying field.
“I want you to look right down that field,” he said. “Look all the way down there. Seniors, you’ll never play again on this field if we don’t keep winning. This field is done with you unless you win the next two games… This is our home court here and we want to get back to it. Don’t let tonight be your last game on this field.”
Their journey to that moment, that post-game speech, gathered momentum in the top of the second quarter. “By the second quarter we started clicking,” Newsted said.
That was when, at the 11:52 mark, after the Indians had gotten very used to Simkins rifling short passes to Wheaton, or making deceptive handoffs to Owens or Davenport, he ran 27 yards up the middle for the game’s first touchdown.
The next step concluded five minutes later when Simkins built a passing drive to the next touchdown. First to Wheaton, then Guy Moran, then a guile-less handoff to Owens who sprinted eastward in a seven-yard nail gun sweep to score the next touchdown.
The Panthers scored again less than a minute later, this time a season-first. The defense drove Van-Far back to their 15-yard line, forcing two fumbles in the process. On the last, the ball bounced into the end zone. That was where a Van-Far back recovered it only to be driven to the end zone grass by Quentin Foster.
“Defensively they’re a good solid team,” Van Far Head Coach Kevin Baldwin, said afterward when asked if any Panther stood out as threat. “Championship caliber. We knew there was no single player for us to key on.”
On Centralia’s next possession, Simkins abruptly concluded Centralia’s drive with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Wheaton, followed by a two-point conversion toss to Stidham. After a scoreless first quarter, the Panthers went to the locker room at half-time with a 24-0 lead.
The Panthers scored again in the third when Owens scored on an 11-yard rush through the middle after Draven Hamilton made a big block allowing fellow Simkins get inside the Indian 11 leading to another score. Senior Cameron Jennings took his spot at nose tackle to begin the first and fourth quarters recording a couple of assists. The final defensive play was made by senior Carson Sanders picked off Van-Far quarterback Eric Hombs’ pass at mid field in front of the home bench and Panther faithful.
Hombs had a 20-yard completion in the fourth, which he followed with a handoff to Parker Wallace for Van-Far’s sole touchdown. “We’re a ball control offense,” Baldwin said afterward, “we’re working to be more elusive in the future.”
Owens scored again in the fourth with 16-yard rush, followed by Davenport with an eight-yard touchdown run.
Afterward, Newsted said he did use the game as an opportunity to work some things that will come in handy during the rest of the playoffs.
“I put us at a disadvantage in the first quarter by saying ‘we’re going to work on some things we need to work on, to get better on for the next two weeks, even if they don’t give us what we need to work against,” he said, adding that put them at a disadvantage in the early series. “Then we started working on things that we know will score some points and that’s what we did.”
While the team has grown since the last time they played Palmyra, Centralia’s opponent next Friday in round two of the district playoffs, Newsted said there is more to be done.
“We have to be ready mentally and ready physically,” he said. “We’ve got to come out and play a lot harder and put our kids in the right positions in a defense and offense we know they can do and be successful against them.”
Newsted said it was his job to motivate them, but ultimately it came down to how hard the team wants to play. He said they’ve grown a lot since that first game, which they lost 35-0 loss. Players such as Wheaton, Kaiser and Moran have helped the team grow into a new identity since that earlier game
“They’ve stepped up, he said. “That last game was in the past. This is a new season and we’re going to get something done. The way we’ve got things now, it’s working.”