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Panthers set to battle unbeaten Eastern

PANTHERS: Eastbrook senior Zeke Binkerd has been a dual threat runner and pass catcher in the Panthers' ground-game heavy offense this season. Eastbrook (9-2) travels to Greentown to face Eastern (11-0) in the Class 2A Sectional championship game at 7 p.m. today.

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

The Class 2A Sectional 36 championship game features an intriguing matchup between a program that has established a long tradition of success and one that is trending in that direction.

Eastbrook (9-2), ranked fifth by Indiana's coaches and No. 8 by the Associated Press, ventures westward into Howard County seeking its fourth consecutive sectional title and 15th in program history. Panthers coach Jeff Adamson, now in his 31st season at his alma mater, has guided teams to 13 of Eastbrook's 14 sectional titles.

Awaiting the Panthers in Greentown is an unbeaten Eastern (11-0) team, looking for the first sectional title in program history under 13th-year coach Josh Edwards. The Comets are ranked 11th by the coaches, ninth by the AP, and Edwards didn't hesitate when asked what this year of Eastern football has been like.

"Obviously, it's been special," he said. "This is a group of guys, when these seniors were freshmen we had a mediocre year, finished 4-5, but we knew we had some good things going. We knew we had some youth coming up with our juniors that were eighth graders. We knew we had some good things on the horizon.

"This is just a group of kids that has committed themselves to getting the program where it's at now," Edwards continued. "We want to get to where Eastbrook is at, that's our goal. Long way to go but that's our goal. That's what we strive for is to get that level. We know we're not there yet, but we've got a chance to go against one of the best and see where we're at."

Adamson and Edwards agreed that a big key to the Comets' success can be traced to a stingy defense, one that ranks second in Class 2A and allows just over nine points per game. That average includes allowing 31 to Lapel in the opening round of sectional play, a game Eastern won 34-31 with a touchdown in the final seconds. The Comets have pitched three shutouts and allowed more than 10 points only three times all season.

"They've played really solid defense," Adamson first stated when asked about his concerns from Eastern.

"The defensive line is really good, but they're really good about creating gaps for their linebackers is the biggest thing it looks like to me, really good at creating seems for those guys to run through," Adamson said. "All of their linebackers and secondary guys are outstanding athletes, all have good speed and that makes for a pretty good group."

Eastbrook's defense has been very good as well, allowing just over 14 points per game. But after surrenduring 79-points combined in losses to Marion and Delta the first two weeks of the season, the Panthers have given up just 79 points - an average of 8.8 - over the final nine weeks.

Both the Panthers and Comets rank in the top 10 in 2A scoring, Eastbrook is fourth at nearly 40 points per game while Eastern is 10th at just under 34.

Edwards was quick to identify his biggest concern about Eastbrook.

"Their overall team speed. They seem to have quickness and speed at all positions beyond their offensive line and throughout their skilled spots," Edwards said. "And I think that translates over into their defense to where they're not big but fast, strong and aggressive. That will be our biggest challenge. We do have a good line, but it's going to be whether or not they can adapt to (Eastbrook's) quickness."

The opposing offenses will offer a contrast in styles, the Panthers' trademark option football versus the Comets spread formations.

Eastbrook has rushed for more than 3,300 yards, senior Wyatt Stephenson being the workhorse with 206 carries for 1,014 and 19 touchdowns. As usual through, the Panthers bring a lot of diversity with their running attack: senior quarterback Dylan Bragg has 665 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, while sophomore Isaiah Dalton (543 yards) and senior Zeke Binkerd (536 yards) average over six yards per carry and have seven rushing touchdowns each. Bragg hasn't thrown often, but eight of his 24 completions have gone for touchdowns and he has 473 yards through the air.  

"Our scout team cannot simulate the speed of Eastbrook and how they effectively run their offense and how they block," Edwards said. "We have stressed to them watching film this week is ultra important, studying your scouting report is ultra important in preparing for Eastbrook. The scout team can give you basic formations and ideas of what the play looks like, but as far as simulating it accurately, we're not able to do that."

Junior Zane Downing leads the Comets offense with 217 carries for 1,553 yards and 24 touchdowns. Junior Makhai Reed has rushed for 533 yards and seven scored. The Comets have collectively amassed more than 2,700 yards on the ground while senior quarterback Nolan Grubb has passed for 1,151 yards and six scores after missing the first three games of the season. Junior Ethan Jones has 500 yards receiving with six TDs along with 291 yards rushing.

"(Eastern's) offense kind of complements (the defense) because they've been able to run the ball so well they just kind of been able to keep the ball away from the other team," Adamson said. "The Downing kid is a really good back, he reminds me a lot of Wyatt. He's not big in stature but he's very strong and he runs hard.

"We're going to have to figure out their defense and hopefully get a couple turnovers then take care of the ball on our side," he added.