PAXTON — Paxton-Buckley-Loda football is hungry for more in its second season in the Illini Prairie Conference.
The foundation is in place.
The Panthers are a sterling 11-0 at Zimmerman Field since 2019. They’ve qualified for the playoffs each season since 2014 and advanced to the second round in each of their last three appearances.
Senior tight end and middle linebacker Kayden Snelling headlines a cast that returns to fourth-year coach Josh Pritchard’s squad following last season’s 7-4 campaign.
“We want to win a lot of games this year because we have six home games,” Snelling said. “That’ll definitely be a momentum booster for us and hopefully gets us to the playoffs again.”
Snelling’s ability to run and create mismatches pairs nicely with the abilities of senior linemen Aaron Kavajecz and Kendall Swanson to lead the charge up front.
“He’s a great run stopper,” Pritchard said of Kavajecz. “Kendall Swanson probably deserved an all-conference bid.”
The unblemished stretch at I-57 Stadium spans the Panthers’ final two seasons in the Sangamon Valley Conference and its first season in the Illini Prairie. They’ll look to continue that success this season, with PBL checking in at No. 5 in The News-Gazette’s preseason Top-10 poll.
Arguably the biggest win during that stretch was a 16-15 win against then-undefeated Monticello in Week 7 last fall, a key victory against a longtime area power.
“A lot of people kind of, in my opinion, were going to underestimate us when we came into the conference,” Pritchard said. “We definitely don’t have that hidden mystique any more of what PBL football really is, which isn’t a bad thing, when people kind of recognize you across the area or even across the state.”
With six home games this year — including the season opener against Chillicothe IVC at 7 p.m. on Aug. 26 — the Panthers could guarantee a playoff spot by extending the winning streak for another season.
“Our home crowd has been awesome,” Pritchard said. “It’s definitely a football community first. Everywhere I go, they kind of recognize you, which is awesome, because that means that people are invested.”
A graduate of Triad High School in Troy, Pritchard arrived in Paxton after graduating from Southeast Missouri State University and spending time as a defensive coordinator at Oblong and then as the head coach of Petersburg PORTA.
The 2019 News-Gazette All-Area Coach of the Year has continued what former coach Jeff Graham built and kept the Panthers competitive in the Illini Prairie.
But late-season losses at Unity — one in Week 8 and the other in the second round of the 3A playoffs — leave the Panthers wanting more.
“We want to give everybody a competitive game like we felt like we did except for Unity in Week 8, but I think we showed them that we can play with them in the second round,” Pritchard said. “We just have to continue to get better in conference so we can be in that top half, and maybe we do win the conference title.”
A highly anticipated rematch with the Rockets will come at home on Oct. 14 at the end of a grueling three-week stretch that also includes a home games against Prairie Central on Sept. 30 and a game at Monticello on Oct. 7.
It’s a stretch that will test the new-look Panthers offense, which needs to retool after the graduation of quarterback Mason Bruns and running back Tyler Smith.
No clear answer exists at quarterback at this stage in the offseason, with senior Aidan Johnson and sophomore Conner Vaughn set to split time calling signals.
Johnson will also spend time at wide receiver, and Vaughn’s aptitude for the game leaves Pritchard optimistic about the core of the offense.
“You get thrown into varsity in this conference, it’s not going to be easy,” Pritchard said. “(Vaughn is) definitely learning. He’s a really, really intelligent kid. But it’s a kid that we feel like maybe we’re going back to for three years … he has a really strong arm. They’re gonna have a little bit of a battle.”
Smith graduated in May after setting a program record in rushing yards last fall, leaving a void that will be filled by senior O’Quinn Gerdes and sophomore Robert Boyd-Meents.
Gerdes has drawn comparisons to 2020 graduate Drake Schrodt’s physical rushing style, while Boyd-Meents is a track athlete who Pritchard expects to add a level of athleticism.
Though the skill positions have been refurbished, Panthers’ fans should remain confident with the duo of Kavajecz and Swanson up front on both sides of the ball.
“Coach says all year, every game, every practice, the game relies on our hands,” Kavajecz said. “It’s a lot of weight on our shoulders. But I think we do better with the pressure.”
It’s not rewarding work, but the offensive line was key in opening doors for Smith and allowing the Panthers to average just north of 22 points per game in 2021.
“We don’t really get a lot of credit, but we know to do our job, so that way, the main people can do their job and get the big scores,” Swanson said. “It gets pretty dirty sometimes, but we’ve just got to do our job.”