STERLING – The Erie-Prophetstown Panthers gathered in the shadow of the goalpost on the south end of Roscoe Eades Stadium following Saturday’s Class 3A first-round loss to Newman.
Coach Chuck Milem spoke over sniffles to his team, as his players lost another fight – this one against tears.
Milem talked about the pride he felt for a team that finished 5-5 and played the first playoff game for the co-op since 2002.
Most of the kids with bruised egos grew up watching team after team suffer through one losing season after another.
That was one of the things that made them tough. The same fate wasn’t going to be theirs.
“It was dedication on this team to the weight room, especially going into the summer camps with each other,” senior fullback/linebacker Zach Inskeep said. “Before, we didn’t have a group of seniors who loved to be around each other and loved to be in the weight room and on the field together. This was the first year that we had a brotherhood, I feel.”
The bonding, the lifting, the sweat paid off this season. They beat Morrison, the defending 2A champions, and they pushed powerhouse Newman in two tight games.
Newman won Saturday 21-6, but after a slow start the Panthers fought back within a touchdown at 14-6 in the third quarter.
“We’ve been slow in the first half a lot this season,” Inskeep said. “I don’t know if its the bus ride or what. We usually come out strong in the second half for some reason.”
Newman coach Mike Papoccia walked off the field knowing his team was better off having been challenged twice by this upstart that could turn into annual struggle.
“We had to work for everything we got, which I like, to be honest,” he said. “It made our guys work hard and adapt to what they were doing.”
Papoccia will go on with the challenge of the Class 3A bracket. The Panthers will go into an offseason with the challenge of trying to take the next step in 2013.