Pioneer football preview: Back in 1A, Panthers mixing in freshmen with experienced starters
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
The Pioneer football team came into last year’s Class 2A sectional final game against LaVille riding a nine-game winning streak.
And they had never lost to LaVille before.
They lost 41-0, just their second loss in a sectional game in nine years.
Relevant to this year, they were no longer subject to the IHSAA Success Factor, and they dropped down to Class 1A.
That loss might have hit differently as compared to losing an intense semistate game as they did to Fort Wayne Luers in 2020.
Pioneer coach Adam Berry recalled a coaches meeting over the weekend where an assistant coach recalled a player saying, ‘Coach, I wish we had that one back.’”
“I think it’s more motivating than anything,” Berry said. “Because it was not competitive. That was not Pioneer football and how we play.”
Berry was asked how the LaVille loss felt different from the loss to Fort Wayne Luers in the 2020 semistate.
“From start to finish, even when things weren’t going our way, we were staying in it,” Berry said. “Now, credit LaVille. They put it to us. They were better prepared to play that game than we were. But it just felt like after we got down pretty quick, you could just kind of see it in the players that I don’t know if we’re going to bounce back from this.
“So as the head coach, I took that personally because I never want my guys to give up like that. But I will say it was a motivating factor, and I think it taught our current seniors something. Because … the leadership they have provided so far this season has been since probably the Kiser years, probably some of the best leadership we’ve seen. It’s been very nice and refreshing. There’s an excitement during every practice.”
Berry said the leadership was important to help usher in a group of freshmen like Tuff Uebler, Noah Van Meter, Eli Guffey and Tyler Schnurpel, all of whom will start somewhere in the varsity lineup for Friday’s season opener at Lewis Cass.
Caleb Sweet started last year on the offensive line. Then he was a tight end. But starting with a 34-14 win over Knox on Oct. 1 last year, he was the starting quarterback.
The offseason allowed him to refine his reads and footwork.
“He actually went to our team camp as a quarterback and not as an offensive lineman,” Berry said. “And so he said when practices first started, he goes, ‘Coach, my steps were wrong a lot of times last year,’ and I was pretty honest with him and said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t want to really stress that too much come Week 7 when it’s new to you. Really, I was more focused on getting the ball and you getting the ball to the right person.’ He realized pretty quick that he had a lot of work to do, but it is a lot better. He’s slimmed down some but is also strong. We’re excited to see what he can do starting Week 1 as a quarterback.”
Junior Rylahn Toloza will start at fullback, and juniors Tyler Zellers and Cayden Hill will start at wingback. Seth Schmehl is a “1B” at both fullback and wingback and will get playing time, according to Berry.
If Pioneer wants to put a wide receiver on the field, look for Hill to move out there with Schmehl getting on the field at wingback.
Uebler, who is listed at 5-4 and 123 pounds, will also see time at wingback.
“Even though he’s on the smaller end, he gets after it,” Berry said. “He’ll get on your hip, and he’ll do what he can.”
Senior Eli Rans is a newcomer to football and could also see time at wide receiver.
Peyton Schnurpel and Owen Miller are seniors who will play tight end.
On the offensive line, seniors Brenton Gaumer and Cody LeGrand will play left and right tackles, respectively. Noah Van Meter and Eli Miller will play left guard and right guard, respectively.
That Van Meter made the starting lineup is significant, according to Berry, who is starting his seventh year as coach.
“I have not started the season with a freshman on the line,” Berry said. “I know when I was the assistant, we’ve had some freshmen rotate in and maybe start at tackle, but guard, this is a first probably in a while.”
Schnurpel, who Berry said has been playing center since he was a third-grader, will deliver the snaps to Sweet.
LeGrand and Gaumer will start at defensive tackle with Peyton Schnuepel and Eli Miller playing at end.
Eli Miller will play end after playing linebacker previously in his career.
Owen Miller and Silas Rouch will rotate in on the line as well.
“We’re moving more towards the 4-3 look again, what we’ve done for 20-plus years prior to moving to the 3-4,” Berry said. “But just seeing our personnel, we thought going back to our 4-3 was a better look for us. So both the Miller boys have moved more to the defensive line role and have adapted well.”
Sweet, who was an inside linebacker on the 3-4, will play middle linebacker in the 4-3. This means he will call the plays in the huddle on both offense and defense.
Zellers and Van Meter will play outside linebacker with Zellers more of the “Sam,” or strongside, linebacker, and Van Meter more of the “Will,” or weakside, linebacker.
Uebler and Toloza will be the cornerbacks, and Hill and Guffey will start at safety.
Hill started his prep career as a cornerback before moving to safety last year. Guffey played linebacker as an eighth-grader last year and has impressed coaches with his communication skills.
“A lot of times, we just said, ‘Hey, you have this man. Man up,’” Berry said in Hill’s evolution from cornerback to safety. “Whereas at safety, he has to read his keys. And especially going back to the 4-3, we rely on our safeties a lot in that run support. … A lot of time, our safeties are our leading tacklers, but it’s not because they’re gaining five or 10 yards but because our safeties are making plays at the line of scrimmage or one or two yards past the line of scrimmage.”
Rans will kick off and has also shown an ability to make PATs in practice, though Berry is hopeful that they improve on the snapping and holding portion of the PAT.
The punting situation is unclear.
“It really is a question mark right now who our punter’s going to be,” Berry said. “So obviously, that’s something we’re going to need to figure out soon this week.”
Hill, Toloza and Schmehl will return punts and kickoffs.
New bleachers have been installed at The Pit.
“They look nice,” Berry said. “After having that home scrimmage (against Northwestern), tons of compliments. Tons of, ‘Wow, these were a lot better than even the view from the road.’ … There is a separate box simply for media, so there’s four different entrances to the press box – one box for the home team; one box for the visitors; a huge (box), it looks like twice the size for media; and then one for the workers. So it’s been nice, and I think the fans are going to appreciate it.”
Aug. 19 – at Lewis Cass, 7 p.m.
Aug. 26 – vs. Winamac, 7 p.m.
Sept. 2 – vs. LaVille, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 – vs. Caston, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 – at Hammond Central, 8 p.m.
Sept. 23 – at Triton, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 – at Knox, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 – vs. Culver, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 – at North Judson, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 – Class 1A, Sectional 41 quarterfinal
Class 1A, Sectional 41
South Central (Union Mills)