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PREP FOOTBALL: Home playoff game on the line for E'town (10/22)

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By Chuck Jones

When the Elizabethtown Panthers were pushing themselves in the weight room during the offseason or through conditioning in the summer months, this is exactly why they were doing it.

After winning only one game the last two years, the Panthers are enjoying a resurgence this season with each game bigger than the last. After beating archrival LaRue County last week, now they travel to play Henry County on Friday with the No. 2 seed on the line.

“It’s a very important game,” Elizabethtown sophomore Berneil Cecil said. “It’s more important than last week and LaRue County’s a very big game. But this is about getting a home playoff game and you have a better advantage playing at home.”

Elizabethtown (6-2) and Henry County (5-3) both are 1-1 with wins over LaRue County and losses to Louisville Central. The playoff formula is simple. The winner gets the second seed and a home playoff game, while the loser goes on the road.

“It’s actually the most important game we’ve played,” Elizabethtown senior James Washington said. “We worked so hard for this. We’ve only lost two games to really good teams. We’re having a good season. Getting a home playoff game is big for us. We really want this.”

Coach Adam Billings said the Panthers continue to improve every week, which is big reason why they are in this situation to earn a home game in the first round.

“It’s a great opportunity for our kids,” Billings said. “This is what they’ve worked hard for to be in this position. A home playoff game is a big deal. We told them at the beginning of the season each game is going to get bigger each week. They’ve worked hard, getting better every week.”

The Wildcats, who are coming off a 21-0 loss to Central, rely on their ground game. Junior Mason Fish leads the attack with 807 yards and eight touchdowns on 88 carries. Junior Austin Hartsell has 368 yards and eight scores on 93 attempts, while sophomore Bodie Clark had added 160 yards on 43 tries.

Facing a power running game is nothing new for the Panthers. Billings said last week he scheduled Bullitt Central for the sole reason of getting them prepared for district teams like LaRue County and Henry County.

“It’s very helpful to get us prepared,” Elizabethtown senior Desmond Wiley said. “Since we played Central and South Warren, who have tight running games, we feel like we can play with anyone and hold our own. It’s all about executing. Everyone has their jobs to do and we just need to execute.”

The Panthers are limiting opponents to 177.9 yards per game on the ground. After giving up 281.3 rushing yards a game two years ago and 345.9 last season, the players said a change in mentality has made the biggest difference.

“It’s night and day,” Billings said. “The biggest thing is we have guys flying to the football. If you watch our film, we’re not relying on one guy to make the tackle. We’re getting everyone going to the football. They’re playing hard and playing tough. You’ve got to instill that attitude. It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of fundamentals.”

On the opposite side, the Panthers are putting up 30.5 points per game behind a strong running attack. Cecil leads the area with 1,170 yards and 17 touchdowns on 145 carries. Washington and junior Tevin Lucas each have rushed for more than 100 yards.

“Our linemen have done a great job this year,” Cecil said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to run the ball like we have. We would do nothing without them.”

With two good running teams, Billings said this game will be decided by which team wins the battle at the line of scrimmage.

“We’re expecting a battle,” Billings said. “They have big kids up front and they play very physical. They’re used to stopping the run considering what they face every day in practice.

“It’s option football,” he added. “It’s dive, quarterback, pitch. It’s 3 yards and a cloud of dust. First down is going to be big for us. With veer and wishbone teams, you can’t give up 6, 7, 8 yards on first down. We have to win the battle up front. That’s where this game is going to be won.”

Chuck Jones can be reached at 270-505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.