PANA — Pana senior running back Lane Perry decided he was going to put it all on his shoulders.
Last season, Pana's running game was slow to jump out of the gate — the low point coming in a Week 4 loss and a 31-yard team rushing performance against eventual South Central Conference champions Carlinville.
But the Panthers eventually found their stride and by Week 8 they poured on 349 rushing yards against rival Vandalia, including 166 yards and three touchdowns for Perry.
"At the beginning of this season, (defensive coach Ryan) Lipe and our running backs coach, Wes Horton, were teasing me that we always think we are going to have a great run game and it just never turns out at the beginning of the season," Perry said. "I looked at them and I said, 'I will change that. That’s going to be my thing.'"
Perry has done just that for the Panthers (2-0), averaging 116 yards per game on the ground in Week 1 and 2 and scoring four touchdowns to help the team win convincingly over Staunton and Roxana.
"Our run game was pretty dismal at the beginning of last year and we wanted to start off where we left off obviously. It has paid off and we haven’t had to put it in the air very much," Lipe said. "Lane is definitely our top dog there and he’s our go-to guy, but we have three other guys who we have been using in and out to give some breaks and they are all faster than him."
Those three other senior runners — Bryce Edmiston, Tyson Kime and Cameron Owens — have combined for another 201 rushing yards and three touchdowns, giving the Panthers' offense a different look than last year which featured Class 1A state track champion Cody Klein at wide receiver.
"Bryce has always been good," Perry said. "You give him a lane to run in, he’s in it and through it. He is crazy fast and then Tyson was a lineman through JFL and moved to running back so he's tough."
Perry put the running game on his shoulders, and those shoulders are noticeably larger this season after an intense summer workout regime.
"Over the summer, I put in about six hours a day in the weight room, and then I would come out for two hours of practice," Perry said. "I worked my butt off getting ready for the season, and when it finally got here I knew I couldn’t whiff on my stats. I worked as hard as I could on they field as I did in the weight room.
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"I’m stronger and faster than I have ever been. When people are trying to catch me or bring me down I can feel the difference of trying to push them off and outrun them. I feel like I have the extra step of speed to get out there."
At linebacker, Perry is the rock of the defense, leading the team with 17 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.
"We have moved (Lane) to outside linebacker from middle linebacker this season and he sets our tone," Lipe said. "He’s the fastest linebacker we have got and we’ve got some speed guys. Everybody looks up to him to be the big hitter and to stop guys.
"He’s the guy we want teams to try to run away from because we can compensate from there."
The Panthers' first team on defense has only given up one touchdown this season and Perry can tell there has been an overall improvement.
"I think we have fewer missed tackles this year and we’ve worked a lot on our tackling," Perry said. "We have a great secondary, and our safety and corners are outstanding in tackling and keep that ball on the ground. In our first game (against Staunton) we had two pick-6s and three interceptions all together."
The Panthers will be tested by another run-focused team when Gillespie comes to Pana at 7 p.m. Friday.
"The best thing about playing Gillespie and Roxana back-to-back is that they are both power run teams. Our game plan doesn’t have to alter a ton, but that helps us." Lipe said. "It helps in practice for the kids to run a lot of the same plays so they understand it better."
The Panthers have also become as close as a team can be in their support for head coach Trevor Higgins who has returned to his coaching duties following the tragic death of his son Evan this summer.
Said Perry: "This was how I described it, we are closer now than we have ever been and we hate that it was this that brought us together because we were really close before but this really magnified it. We are here for coach and that’s how we want it to be."