BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
What happened in Royal Center last fall was the Panther Pit of despair.
The Pioneer football team went 2-8. That marked their first losing season since 1995 and their most losses in a season since 1992.
In between losing seasons, they won 12 sectionals, eight regionals, five semistates and three state titles.
“It’s new territory for us as coaches, for the players and for the community,” Berry said. “It’s been a long time since the early ‘90s since we had a record like that, even a losing record for that matter. … Definitely different territory.”
The season ended on a six-game losing streak. Going back to 2021, they have lost their last two postseason games by a combined score of 83-6.
But it’s also true that of the 29 kids that came out for football, Pioneer still has four seniors – Cayden Hill, Rylahn Toloza, Tyler Zellers and Colton Baker – who were members of the 2020 Pioneer team that reached the Class 2A semistate.
The number of kids coming out for football is noteworthy because Pioneer coach Adam Berry said the number of kids in the weight room was in the “mid-30s.”
And getting kids in the weight room is important to compete with powerhouse programs in the Hoosier North like LaVille, Knox and North Judson.
“This summer, this was a very important offseason,” Berry said. “And we just didn’t have the numbers in the summer that I would have liked. There are variables for that because I only held them one time of day, and that was in the morning where quite a few had work and simply just couldn’t make it, and they found time on their own to get some workouts in, but numbers-wise, to be honest, we just didn’t have the numbers that I would have liked to have seen this summer.
“However, the guys that were there made tremendous strides. You could tell, especially January until the end of July, their one-rep maxes increased tremendously. They got faster and just looking at them, you can tell they got stronger.”
The team also went to a non-contact, national wing-T clinic at Trine University in which they went over the “nuts and bolts” of the offense, according to Berry.
They also held two practices and two scrimmages, one at home and one at Logansport, in which Berry felt the team improved.
Sophomore Micah Rans begins his first full season as starting quarterback after Berry said “we threw him into the fire” last year.
“It’s tough for a freshman to play quarterback 1A through 6A,” Berry said. “It doesn’t matter. And you know, especially not to think you’re going to be that starting varsity quarterback and to get thrown in there in Week 5 or 6, and I just thought he got a little more comfortable each week, and then I’d say so far this year, just his command of the huddle and maturity has been an improvement, and just understanding more. … We’ve started with our basic stuff just to get our whole team comfortable, and we’re gradually inserting other stuff. But he’s just more comfortable under center this year than he was last year.”
Pioneer returns their top three rushers from last year to whom Rans can hand off the ball. They include Toloza, the fullback who ran for 1,069 yards and 15 touchdowns; Hill, a wingback who ran for 235 yards; and Zellers, a wingback who ran for 188.
Berry called sophomores Eli Guffey and Noah Van Meter the “primary” tight ends, but freshmen Mason Shaver and Blu Rosen-Jacks could also provide depth. Berry also said that any of the tight ends could move to wide receiver.
Junior Grant Campbell, whom Berry calls the leader of the offensive line, and sophomore Brady Price will start at guards In between them is sophomore center Tyler Schnurpel, back from a knee injury suffered during wrestling season.
Tackles include sophomore Liam Rouch, junior Fletcher Smith, Baker and sophomore Kayden Wilson.
Wilson and freshman Mikaden Toloza could also rotate in at guard.
Van Meter, Smith, Baker, Rosen-Jacks, Campbell, Wilson and Schnurpel are among the defensive linemen.
“With our defensive line, the goal is even if one’s a starter to kind of filter through to keep them fresh really for offensive line and defensive line,” Berry explained.
Zellers, Price and Campbell will handle the inside linebacker spots with Guffey, Shaver and J.J. Solano playing outside linebacker.
Rans and Toloza will play cornerback. Hill is a returning starter at safety, but freshman Shiloh Rine could also play safety. Berry said sophomore Cole Franklin is also learning both cornerback and safety.
“We were on the defensive side of the ball quite often last year because our offense couldn’t produce first downs, but just in general, we gave up too many big plays, whether it was passing or running,” Berry said. “We just didn’t execute like we would have liked to have seen last year.”
With so many freshmen and sophomores on the roster, Berry speaks of building confidence.
“I’d say it is big to build that confidence,” Berry said. “But like I said, so far this fall camp, they’ve been working extremely hard, very coachable. They seem like they genuinely enjoy each other. The seniors have taken the freshmen who are getting some reps under their wings and really helped them out. They see them doing something; they’re helping them out on what to do.
“So some extra eyes out there for us during practice. It’s just been a good start to the season.”
Berry said that the Pioneer standard will not be lowered, even after last season.
“We know simply by our youth, we may have some bumps in the road early on, but we still have extremely high expectations, where we’re still going to expect and win every game just like we do every other year,“ Berry said. “Hopefully, that’s the players’ mindset as well. We’re going to go in there with full confidence that we can be in any ballgame and win at the end.”
Aug. 18 – vs. Lewis Cass, 7 p.m.
Aug. 25 – at Winamac, 7 p.m.
Sept. 1 – at LaVille, 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 – at Caston, 7 p.m.
Sept. 15 – vs. Hammond Central, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 22 – vs. Triton, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 – vs. Knox, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 6 – at Culver, 7 p.m.
Oct. 13 – vs. North Judson, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 – Class 1A, Sectional 41 quarterfinal
Class 1A, Sectional 41
South Central (Union Mills)