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Panthers ready for playoffs

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Phillipsburg High School football team has 14 seniors on a 37-player roster, a high percentage for any high school. Many of those seniors have seen plenty of playing time in the last few seasons, including quarterback Riley Juenemann, running backs Hunter Kohler and Michael Dusin, wide receiver Grant Wickham and lineman Clayton Sauer and Seth Boswell.

That experience and close-knit group has helped deliver a 15-3 record in the last two years, including several physical, slobber-knocker victories this season. Phillipsburg went 5-0 on the road, played six eventual playoff teams, and faced the No. 3 schedule in Class 3A, according to preppowerindex.com.

The Panthers earned a playoff berth with a 20-16 victory against rival Norton on Thursday, defeated 2-1A power Oakley 14-6 in Week 3 for the Plainsmen's only loss, and beat Hoisington 33-6 in Week 4.

In Week 7, the Panthers lost to Beloit, the top-ranked team in Class 3A, 48-27. However, Phillipsburg held Beloit to 6.6 yards per play; the Trojans' worst of the year is 6.4 yards a play.

"We have been in some tough games this year," coach J.B. Covington said after the Norton victory. "I think the Oakley proved big for us tonight. That helped us a lot, and Hoisington was a rough, tough game as well as Beloit."

Phillipsburg's roster and resume could pay off with a deep playoff berth. The Panthers (8-1) travel to Sacred Heart (8-1) for the first round of the Class 3A playoffs Tuesday night. Phillipsburg is 5-7 all-time in the playoffs and all eight of the school's playoff appearances have come since 2001. This is the first meeting since Phillipsburg lost 53-26 to Sacred Heart on Halloween in 2006.

"We feel like we are a great team," Juenemann said. "We feel like we can beat anyone and that's like any other team would. We have just got to stay focused - Sacred Heart, that's all we can look at now."

This is Sacred Heart's 24th playoff appearance. Currently under former Norton coach Bruce Graber, the Knights have made the postseason every year since 1998, except 2009. Sacred Heart is tied for fifth in 3A with 395 points and features senior quarterback Nick Wuthnow, who has accounted for more than 1,500 total yards.

"I think we are setting in a pretty good spot right now," Dusin said. "We've just to play one game at a time. We can't really worry about which team we are going to play, but we've just got to win the first game, move on."

Phillipsburg stands tenth in the 64-team classification at just 104 points allowed. Last fall, the Panthers permitted just 88 points in the regular season, but missed the playoffs.

"I know some people thought that we weren't going to be as good," Wickham said. "We have came up and played and everybody got in the weight room this year, got bigger, faster and stronger, and our defense has been amazing this year."

Phillipsburg has some areas of concern, though. Senior defensive lineman Andrew Makings has 63 tackles and a team-high seven sacks, but has missed the last three games because of a foot injury. Makings was looking to come back versus Norton, but received some bad news Wednesday and will miss another few weeks if the Panthers keep advancing. Phillipsburg had trouble running the ball versus the Bluejays and finished with 144 rushing yards, including just 22 on 21 second half carries.

"Offensively, we left some points out there, we didn't punch it in when we needed to," Covington said.

The Panthers had another slow start and some problems tackling against Norton, especially early. Dusin forced and recovered a fumble off a textbook tackle at the Phillipsburg 40-yard line that effectively secured last week's victory.

"Tonight, we didn't really wrap up all that well," he said. "They were kind of bouncing off and running, so just wanted to wrap up and get low on them. That's going to haunt us in the playoffs if we don't do that."

The Panthers have plenty of strengths. Juenemann has capably replaced Sean Newlan, now at Kansas State University, and ranks in the top-10 in passing efficiency among Kansas 11-man quarterbacks. He finished 8 of 11 for 109 yards and a score last Thursday and is 48 of 81 for 1,097 yards and a 9/3 TD/INT ratio.

"I think he is just about as good as Sean Newlan," Wickham said. "I know (Newlan) is a little bit taller and faster and stronger, but Riley does right reads, he does everything the same. I can't compare the two - I think they are about the same." Juenemann kept several drives alive with key third-down passes, rushed for a TD and picked off a pass.

"They weren't the best passes," Juenemann said. "They are great wide receivers, and the O-line, they passed protected great tonight. They were letting me see it. That's all I can ask for."

Five Panthers have at least 168 rushing yards, with Wickham, Kohler, Dusin and Juenemann has the top four. Wickham hauled in three passes for 77 yards and a score and rushed 10 times for 24 yards.

"He keeps the play alive and understands the play, and a lot of times, under pressure, people make mistakes, and you just don't see Riley doing that very often," Covington said. "I thought he did a nice job of getting rid of the ball instead of taking big sacks and delivering good, accurate balls, and then we had guys at the other end that were doing a nice job."