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Panthers run past Eastern for sectional crown




GREENTOWN – Eastern may have been the team with the unblemished record heading into Friday night, but it was traditional power Eastbrook who left town perfect (7-0) against the Comets in football playoff meetings.

Behind a relentless rushing attack, the Class 2A eighth-ranked Panthers scored on all four first half possessions on their way to a 42-12 dismantling of ninth-ranked Eastern in the 2A Sectional 36 Championship at Cogdell Field.

“We felt we needed to get a fast start and kind of make them play from behind a little bit,” commented 31-year veteran Eastbrook coach Jeff Adamson , who was also celebrating his birthday. “When we are getting some yardage, we are going to keep it on the ground.”

As the temperature dipped into the mid 20’s, the red-hot Panther running game put a stamp on the game behind a dominant offensive line performance. Eastbrook compiled 462 yards on 61 carries and had two backs eclipse the 100-yard barrier. It was also the most points allowed by the Eastern defense this season. The Comets had given up an average of just over nine points for the season.

Zeke Binkerd scored from six yards out a little over three minutes into the opening quarter and the Eastbrook offense was off an rolling with a 7-0 lead. It didn’t matter that they backed themselves up with a penalty on the opening kickoff, the Panthers still marched 93 yards in 10 plays.

“The objective all week was to get off to a good start,” remarked Eastbrook senior quarterback Dylan Bragg remarked. “We didn’t want to give them any hope.”

Perhaps the biggest play of the night wasn’t a Panther run, but their first pass. Bragg doesn't throw it often, but it was an accurate 26-yard completion to backup tight end Austin Hollars on fourth down and six at the Eastern 37-yard line that extended the first drive.

“Dylan throws the ball well and we are capable of throwing,” Adamson complimented. “We had an injury to Alex Baker, our leading receiver, and Austin was filling in. That was a really big play.”

After stopping Eastern on downs, the Panther offense quickly marched 62 more yards to add to their advantage.

Wyatt Stephenson, who has been the featured back, went the final three yards and after the extra point was partially blocked the lead stood at 13-0 in the closing minutes of the first quarter. Stephenson, a senior, was on his way to 141 yards, the fifth time in the past six games he has eclipsed the 100 yard mark.

“I’d like to thank my line,” Stephenson said. “They are incredible and work really hard, without them I wouldn’t be able to do any of that.”

Led by a dynamic running back of their own in Zane Downing, the Comets once again were able to penetrate into Eastbrook territory. The shifty junior ran the ball nine times for 44 yards on the drive that got inside the 10-yard line. However, a penalty pushed the Comets back and they eventually missed a 30-yard field goal attempt early in the second quarter.

Eastbrook took advantage with another scoring drive. This time they it took 14 plays to go 80 yards. Bragg kept it on a one-yard sneak and Stephenson added a 2-point conversion with the run and it was 21-0 with 5:55 remaining in the opening half.

Things only got worse for Eastern on their ensuing possession. Unable to pick up a first down, the Comets snap on a punt attempt sailed over Lance VanMatre’s head and all he could do was fall on it at his own 12-yard line.

Binkerd wasted little time scoring his second touchdown two plays later behind a key Issac Rans block. Lucas Shilts added the extra point and Eastbrook had steamrolled to a 28-0 cushion.

Desperately in need of something positive from an offense that had averaged nearly 34 points a game, Eastern got on the board when Nolan Grubb spotted Ethan Jones in the right flat for a four-yard touchdown pass. It cut the deficit to 28-6 just before the half.

The fact Downing was able to run for 125 first half yards, and Eastern would be receiving the second half kick gave the Comets some added life going to the locker room.

Downing quickly provided a glimmer of hope, taking the first play from scrimmage in the second half 60-yards for a scored. Suddenly, it was Eastern with all the momentum while still trailing 28-12.

“We lined up a little out of position on his long run,” Adamson said of his defense. “He took quick advantage of it. He was able to break some tackles even when we had guys there.”

Not able to get a stop at all in the first half, the Comets' defense forced a turnover on downs their first time on the field in the third quarter. Eastern took the ball on the Panthers 40 yard line with still 6:50 to play in the quarter.

“We felt really confident we could pick up two more yards,” an affirming Adamson said of the decision to go for it on his own side of the field. “We had been able to do it all night they made a great play.”

Unfortunately for the Comets they were unable to move the ball and were forced to punt. However, they got the ball right back and were driving inside the Eastbrook 35 when Grubb’s pass toward the end zone was intercepted by Binkerd who brought it out 36 yards and shifted the tide back to his team’s side.

“It was huge,” Bragg said. “(Eastern) had momentum on their side and we needed something to go our way and the defense got a big turnover.”

Thirteen plays later Eastbrook turned that miscue into points when sophomore Isaiah Dalton went in standing up from four yards out for a commanding 35-12 lead with 11:56 remaining in the contest.

It was another outstanding performance for Dalton who finished with a career high 125 yards on 14 carries.

Bragg scored his second touchdown for the Panthers final points with 8:45 left and securing the Eastbrook's 15th sectional title.

“We have such a well rounded backfield,” Bragg said. “That line up front makes it really easy for us.”

Downing toted the ball 28 times and finished with a game-high 229 yards as Eastern (11-1) suffered their only loss of the season.

“For us defensively we were concentrating a lot of attention on Downing,” Adamson added. “It didn’t look like it, but we wanted to limit how many times he could touch it.”

Eastbrook’s senior class becomes the third in school history to win a sectional all four years. The graduating classes of 2005 and 2006 also stake claim to the feat as they are a part of the longest sectional streak for Eastbrook that stands at five from 2001 to 2005.

Does anyone remember this Panther (10-2) team started 0-2? Since then they have been the Panthers of old, notching 10-straight victories and will host Eastside (10-2) on Friday in the regional.