In ‘Lew’ of: Without graduated stars from regional champs, Pioneer seeks continued success
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
ROYAL CENTER –- The Pioneer football team’s success is seemingly the neverending story.
They have had 25 consecutive winning seasons, and three of those seasons have ended with a state championship.
Last year was not one of those state championship seasons, but it might have to be discussed among the better ones. Playing a class above their enrollment level due to the IHSAA Success Factor, Pioneer went 12-2 and won their first Class 2A sectional and regional titles in school history before a 42-34 loss to Fort Wayne Luers in the semistate.
Pioneer has not lost more than three games in a season since 2002. They have won at least 10 games in eight of the last nine seasons, which is made even more impressive by the fact that high school football teams in Indiana are guaranteed only 10 games in a season.
If Pioneer wants to continue that success, they will have to do so without graduated Hoosier North Offensive MVP and RTC Player of the Year Ezra Lewellen, who rushed for over 1,800 yards last season. Addai Lewellen, who rushed for over 1,100 yards himself; Tyler Gaumer, a guard and linebacker; Wyatt Marshall; and Zac Taylor are other first-team all-conference players who graduated. Mason Schnurpel was honorable mention all-conference, and he also graduated.
“We told the players going into it we have a lot of inexperience,” coach Adam Berry said of last week’s scrimmage against Northwestern. “I think we have four or five guys who played on Friday night that really didn’t play a game last year. We were only able to play two JV games last year, so a lot of those players, it was really their first game experience in two years. So we knew there were going to be mistakes. What we were looking for was just looking to see if they played hard, gave effort and were coachable. For the most part, I thought they showed that.
“However, we did have a lot of scrimmage mistakes – a bunch of false starts, snaps over the quarterback’s head. Things we really need to clean up going into week one.”
Sophomore Cayden Hill returns for his second year at quarterback, and his responsibilities will increase within Pioneer’s wing-T offense.
“Just one year older simply,” Berry said. “Last year he had nice weapons around him, so he was just more of a facilitator really. And we’re going to expect more out of him. He’s going to be more of a focal point. … His throwing’s improved, and we're going to have to be able to throw the ball. We can’t just rely on strictly the run just to be able to mix it out and have him be that true dual threat quarterback that we like to have for our offense.”
Fullback Brock Robinson will miss Friday’s season opener against Indianapolis Scecina with an ankle injury that Berry describes as “non-football-related.” Robinson also ran for over 1,100 yards last season. Peyton Schnurpel and Logan Smith will fill in at fullback with Robinson out.
The wingback position will be “by committee,” according to Berry without the graduated Lewellen brothers.
“Beau Mersch, Ryland Toloza, Seth Schmehl, Brian Gluth and Logan Smith might be in that role a little bit as well,” Berry said. “We’re just trying to figure out who the main guys are right now and who’s really going to step up.”
Mersch could also factor in at wide receiver. Derrick LeGrand and Smith can play tight end.
On the offensive line, twin brothers Eli and Owen Miller will step in at left guard and right guard, respectively. Guards take on a crucial role in Pioneer’s wing-T because they are expected to get out of their stance and pull and trap-block opposing defenders.
Senior Aiden Lowe is back at center. Junior Caleb Sweet and senior Oscar Solano will man the tackle spots with Cody LeGrand and Brenton Gaumer also rotating in. Sweet started every game last year.
“Both are big, athletic and quick but once again just lacking that varsity experience,” Berry said of the Miller brothers. “They’re only juniors, but we think by the time they graduate, they can be very special players for us.”
Berry said he is teaching his players the defense in what is called the “run fit period.” In other words, they slow the play down in practice and show each of them where they fit when the opponent runs a particular running play.
Berry said he is running a simplified defensive scheme that will allow them to play fast.
Derrick LeGrand will start at defensive end, and Berry raves about his instincts. Solano, Lowe and Owen Miller could also see time as ends.
Cody LeGrand could be an interior lineman.
Berry views his defensive linemen as “interchangeable.”
“If you can play end, you can even play our nose guard because it all fits in the same,” Berry said.
Sweet and Eli Miller are inside linebackers with sophomore Tyler Zellers also rotating in. Two of a group that includes Smith, Peyton Schnurpel and Owen Miller will play outside linebacker.
“Our linebackers just through the year have really set the tone for our defense,” Berry said. “We expect that again. Just being athletes, being able to communicate what they see and really those linebackers are the leaders of our defense.”
Berry also views the secondary as interchangeable where players are expected to be able to play cornerback or safety. Hill is a returning starter, and Robinson will start there once he is healthy. Gluth, Mersch and freshman Eli Nicoll could also factor into the secondary.
“He really showed us he knows our game plan, and he knows our coverages, and he flies to the ball, so he’s going to get more looks in practice,” Berry said of Nicoll.
Senior Dillon Odom is a newcomer to football, and he will be the punter and handle kickoffs. Pioneer did not have a placekicker last year – they went for a two-point conversion after every touchdown – and Berry said no determination has been made if they will have one this year.
“We haven’t even looked at PATs yet,” Berry said.
Hill is the main punt and kickoff returner. Mersch is the long snapper.
Berry said 34 players have come out for football, similar to last year’s number. He said he would prefer a roster around 40. He said junior high and youth league numbers are up and hopes the numbers improve in the coming years.
Berry said the players came up with the goal of keeping the Hoosier North title at Pioneer. The Panthers have not lost a conference game since the formation of the conference in 2015.
As another season starts, Berry hopes that the departed players will be beacons for the players that will be stepping into their roles. He said the coaching challenge with the new players is to “catch them up to varsity speed.”
It was those varsity players that graduated that set the standard.
“I hope those younger guys that were able to watch that effort, just the determination that those guys had, and hopefully that does carry on,” Berry said. “Because we’re going to be playing seven, eight guys that have zero varsity experience, but we feel could be pretty special players for us. … They need that confidence, and that will simply come with time.”
Aug. 20 – vs. Indianapolis Scecina, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 27 – at Winamac, 7 p.m.
Sept. 3 – at LaVille, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 10 – at Caston, 7 p.m.
Sept. 17 – vs. Hammond Central, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 24 – vs. Triton, 7 p.m.
Oct. 1 – vs. Knox, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 8 – at Culver, 7 p.m.
Oct. 15 – vs. North Judson, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 22 – Class 2A, Sectional 34 quarterfinal
Class 2A, Sectional 34 (last year’s record)
Lewis Cass (2-8)
Preseason rankings: Pioneer is No. 5, Lewis Cass is No. 12, Bremen is No. 17, and LaVille is tied for No. 19.
NOTES: Pioneer is the defending regional champion. Wabash went 6-5 last season, which marked just their second winning season since 1996. LaVille has had a streak of seven consecutive winning seasons, which followed a streak of 10 straight losing seasons. Andrean, whom Pioneer defeated in last year’s regional, is the preseason No. 1.
Watch Pioneer football and volleyball previews on Talking Sports with Val here: