BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Chesterton (0-1) at Pioneer (1-0), 8 p.m.
The Pioneer defense met their lofty expectations in their season opener against Lewis Cass last week, and they avenged last year’s two losses to Lewis Cass with a 44-0 win.
The pollsters were paying attention. Pioneer jumped up from No. 5 to No. 2 in this week’s Associated Press Class 2A rankings.
Pioneer plays a slanting, gap-control defense. In other words, Pioneer lines up head on with the opposing team’s offensive linemen but slant into the gap between the linemen at the snap.
“Just how fast they played,” Pioneer coach Adam Berry said when asked what he liked about the defense. “Going into the season, we had a feeling that was going to be one of our bright spots. … We had a lot of guys coming back, a lot of guys that were getting comfortable with what we were doing.
“They just carried that over to practice this year, and last Friday night, we told them before the game that if you guys slant the way you’re supposed to and if you guys go hard and if we get 11 hats to the ball, we were going to be very successful on defense, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Offensively, Pioneer has switched back to a more traditional wing-T offense this year. Cayden Hill is the new quarterback, and Ezra Lewellen has moved from quarterback back to running back. Addai Lewellen and Brock Robinson join him in the backfield.
When 2019 Mr. Football Jack Kiser was Pioneer’s quarterback, Berry had switched the offense to more of a shotgun with midline and veer looks. That allowed Kiser to survey the defense and either keep it himself or give to Ezra Lewellen or Addai Lewellen at the wings. With the midline, opponents were also forced to respect fullback Danny Gregorich.
Pioneer kept some of those concepts last year with Ezra Lewellen at quarterback.
Now Pioneer has switched back to their old offense. Berry has said the coaching staff has tried to simplify the play calls so the players won’t have to think so much.
“We got off to a really slow start on Friday,” Berry said. “The first play of the game, we bobbled a snap. Then we had three fumbles in the first half. Once we got settled down - and we had some guys in new positions - and they calmed down a little bit, we started executing.”
Berry also said the offensive linemen have fast feet, which are useful in the Panthers’ blocking schemes, which rely on pulling and down blocks.
It will all be critical against Chesterton, a Class 6A opponent, a Duneland Conference member and a late addition to the schedule. Pioneer was supposed to play Winamac this week but had to find a new opponent when Winamac was forced to cancel after a positive COVID-19 test among the student body.
Playing Chesterton means Pioneer must try to stop junior quarterback Chris Mullen, who threw 26 touchdown passes last season and was named the Times of Northwest Indiana’s Offensive Player of the Year.
“If you watch him on film, he throws a great ball,” Berry said. “If he gets a little pressure, he’s able to scramble and extend the play. There are a lot of times you see on film, where the defensive line, they kind of give up because they just assumed he’s already thrown the ball, but he’s still scrambling out there making plays and finding the open guy. It’s going to be very important that our DBs (and) our linebackers stay in coverage and that our defensive line contains him because if those things don’t happen, he’s going to put up some numbers.”