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Panthers add layers to their football success

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PROUD PANTHERS: Eastbrook’s senior captains (from left), Xaine Kirby, Clay Dalton, Mason Hale, Brandon Davis and Justen Mantz display the Class 2A runner-up trophy after their game with Western Boone at Lucas Oil Stadium on Nov. 23.
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PERINNIAL POWER: Eastbrook head football coach Jeff Adamson (left) and assistant coach Jeff Liddick talk to an official during the Panthers 2A state championship game against Western Boone on Nov. 23.

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

Eastbrook football has set very high standards during coach Jeff Adamson’s 30-year tenure, but the last three years have raised the bar still higher.

The Panthers advanced to the Class 2A state championship game two of the past three seasons, and just missed in 2017 on a late field goal. As Adamson proudly pointed out, the seniors had played in 44 of a possible 45 games the past three seasons.

Adamson now has taken teams to the state finals three times, the first in 2004, and each time has come one step closer to capturing the state title. This last time, the Panthers led 14-10 at halftime and were within a touchdown with five minutes to play before Western Boone pulled off a 38-24 victory in Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.

Perhaps a yearly pilgrimage to Lucas Oil Stadium is unrealistic, yet Adamson’s Eastbrook teams have become a perennial contender in Class 2A. Adamson is 268-86 at his alma mater, seventh-best among active coaches, and the Panthers claimed their 14th sectional, sixth regional and third semistate championships in the postseason.

“I’d be pretty happy if we could go (to the state finals) every year,” Adamson said Friday afternoon. “The credit is not just to how much talent there is in the senior class, but also the quality of their leadership.

“You can’t get there with just one class,” he added. “You’ve got to be able to bring those other guys along, especially as a 2A school. And there have been a couple classes ahead of this group that helped get us there, too. But this group that’s graduating (in June) had a pretty big hand in it.”

Adamson often has relied heavily and placed great responsibility on his senior players, and only two underclassmen started on defense and three on offense during the Panthers’ 13-2 campaign. The previous seniors led by Andrew Barajas had been unbeaten and ranked No. 1 before their semistate loss to Woodlan. The 2016 class certainly was instrumental in the first state finals run.

Each year, Adamson has been able to count on seniors to step up and up fill key roles. This time, fullback Xaine Kirby came through and carried the Panthers especially in the postseason, finishing with 1,933 yards and 22 touchdowns after gaining 593 the previous year. Kirby rushed for 200 or more yards in three of the six tournament games, including 284 against Oak Hill in the sectional first round.

Just as big in Adamson’s eyes was seniors Brandon Davis, Josh Pluimer and Jacob Clupper stepping into starting roles on the offensive line. Adamson had identified the O-line as one his biggest concerns after losing all five interior linemen from the previous year to graduation. By the tournament, the unit had become a real strength and provided the blocking for a ground attack that averaged more than 350 yards a game.

“When you have to replace an entire unit and maybe some guys had some playing time, but getting that unit to play together is very difficult,” Adamson said. “We felt if (the O-line) could come around at least we could be competitive.

“But that group went from being a question mark to being one of our strongest units,” he added. “They did really did well.”

Eastbrook did not go through the regular season unblemished, and the 34-28 loss at arch-rival Mississinewa in Week 4 ultimately cost the Panthers a shot at the Central Indiana Conference championship. But the Panthers won their other eight games in dominating fashion, averaging 47 points and allowing seven, and ended the season a top five-ranked team by the Associated Press (No. 5) and coaches (No. 3).

Adamson believes the Ole Miss loss helped sharpen the Panthers’ focus and drive that continued through the remainder of the season.

“After that, there was more of a resolve on everyone’s part that we try to get better every single week,” Adamson said.”There was a higher level of intensity in practice, there was a higher level of preparation each week, and I really felt everybody was driven to get better individually as we got to the tournament.”

The postseason wasn’t all smooth sailing and the Panthers held on for dear life to defeat Lewis Cass 27-25 in the sectional second round. Then came the dramatic semistate game against Bremen when Eastbrook came back from a nine-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter and won 34-33 on Zane Shilts’ 26-yard field goal as time expired.

“Obviously, Zane’s last-second field goal was incredibly exciting for everybody - coaches, players and the community,” Adamson said. “But you can probably think of several plays in every one of those (playoff) games that were critical for us winning and continuing to play. The fun part was going out and continuing to practice every week.”

Eastbrook was well represented on the coaches all-state teams determined Friday with Kirby, Shilts, tight end Clay Dalton, linebacker Mason Hale and defensive lineman Jake Donaldson making the senior teams. Offensive lineman Cobee Rice received junior all-state recognition.

Rice, quarterback Dylan Bragg and defensive end Alex Baker will be the key returnees for 2019 and it would be unwise to dismiss the Panthers’ chances at making another run in the state playoffs.

“One really neat thing is we have a group of juniors, sophomores and freshmen coming back,” Adamson said. “The juniors have had three years where they had basically had a whole extra season of practice so they have been able to mature and get in extra practice to get themselves better.

“Even some guys who weren’t starters are going to be very well prepared to come in and take over. Some of the younger guys who maybe weren’t on the varsity yet, as they grow and mature they’ve had a whole year of extra work on the reps and technique. We have a young group that maybe hasn’t had as much field time but they had an awful lot of practice time and they’ll be ready to go.”