PANA — Pana quarterback Jack Armstrong thought he was handling the pressure well.
A Panther receiver on last year’s 9-2 team, Armstrong was given the job of replacing graduating quarterback Jacob Beeson at the start of this season.
But as game time was approaching Week 1, the magnitude of his first varsity start hit him.
“I wasn’t nervous leading up to the game but then right before the first snap against Greenville I realized the importance of it all,” Armstrong said. “Every now and then I still get nervous. It was a big change coming from receiver to quarterback.”
Armstrong helped the Panthers win Week 1 and the team now sits at 4-1 as they prepare to host Hillsboro (1-4) on Friday.
In his first five career starts, Armstrong has thrown for 724 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s also the team’s leading rusher with 307 yards and four TDs.
Armstrong didn’t know he led the team in rushing yards, which speaks to the culture that Pana’s coaching staff, led by head coach Trevor Higgins, instills in its players — focus on the team rather than individual accomplishments.
“I’m a little surprised I’m the leading rusher. I’ve always been able to run,” Armstrong said. “I try to get more consistent every week in my play and make plays.”
Higgins has seen his quarterback blossom into a dual threat for the Panthers.
“Like I told them all year, once you believe and trust in that system that’s when you can move the ball up and down the field, running and throwing it,” he said. “When you have a dual threat quarterback it helps with opening the field and you can open up the play book where you can do whatever you want.”
One of Armstrong’s favorite targets has been senior wide receiver Cody Klein.
Klein has 323 yards receiving and five touchdowns, and on defense as a Panthers' cornerback he has picked off two interceptions.
“Cody is an athletic kid and has some God-given talents that you don’t see in a lot of kids," Higgins said. "He’s fast and he can jump up and get the ball for us when we need him too. Just all around he is a great athlete."
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Klein is impressed with Armstrong’s development as a passer.
“From the beginning of the year to now, (Jack) has tremendously improved," Klein said. "We thought he was going to be more of a running quarterback but he has proven through his passing that he can do both."
Klein’s skills go beyond wideout and cornerback — he is also Pana’s kicker, hitting 12 of his 14 point-after attempts.
“He brings everything to the table," Armstrong said. "I just watched him nail a 45-yarder in practice the other day. It was with the wind but he is still a really good kicker."
At 4-1 Pana is a game back of Carlinville (5-0) and Vandalia (5-0) for the lead of the South Central Conference. Both teams weigh heavily on the Panthers.
Carlinville handed Pana its only loss of the season in Week 4, 49-12. It wasn’t pretty and the players took some lessons away.
“Our down week in Carlinville was a wake-up call to some of our guys,” Higgins said. “Even though you preach we need more effort, sometimes it takes something like that to happen to realize, yes, we are a good team, but if we don’t put out the effort you will get beaten.”
The Week 4 loss is something Pana won’t duplicate, Armstrong said.
“I wasn’t expecting that Carlinville game to be like that. I expected to come out and put up a better fight than that. That was not in our plans,” he said. “We can’t come into a game like that ever again.”
The Panthers face Vandalia in Week 9 and the game will have a playoff atmosphere a week before the playoffs start.
“It is always a big rivalry since we are only 30 minutes away from each other," Higgins said. "Anytime you can face Vandalia right before the playoffs, for me that’s going to be a measuring stick for our team right before we go in there."
Klein has been playing against Vandals' players since elementary school.
“They are always a big team, we have been playing them since 5th grade and it seems like they have always been 6-4, 300 pounds and huge,” he said.
Higgins and the Panthers are taking it week by week — become playoff eligible, make the playoffs a certainty and then, at 8-1, maybe get a home playoff game.
“We do a good job as a coaching staff to have them focused on that game but we also give them some goals later on in the playoffs to help them to get motivated for each game as well to play their best,” he said. “We want that home playoff game instead of traveling when it is one-and-done. We would much rather have that new scoreboard and our fans in the stands.”
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten