Whether it be on the football field or the wrestling mat, opponents need to know one thing about Eli Pannell: Be prepared to end up on your back.
The recent Fulton High School graduate looks the part of a dominant athlete, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 235 pounds. Pannell’s quick-twitch athleticism, brute strength and durability made him a standout on the gridiron and the mat.
His senior-season results speak for themselves. In football, Pannell was named Class 1A All-State and unanimous all-Three Rivers Rock as a two-way lineman. He finished his athletic career at FHS in style on the mat, capping an undefeated season with a state championship at 220 pounds in Class 1A.
For that, Eli Pannell is Sauk Valley Media’s Male Athlete of the Year.
Pannell, 18, started playing football in fourth grade. He arrived relatively late to the wrestling scene in seventh grade.
“I always knew I’d be pretty good at football if I just worked hard,” Pannell said. “Wrestling was way different. I wasn’t very good in middle school. I wasn’t strong; I was actually kind of chubby.”
Hundreds of hours in the Fulton weight room quickly transformed fat into muscle.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guys that have spent a lot of time in the weight room, and he’s just like the rest of them,” Fulton football coach Patrick Lower said of Pannell. “He’s so consistent; we could always count on him. He knows his body, from what he needed to do to get ready to what he should eat.”
Pannell’s max numbers in the weight room are certainly impressive. He has bench pressed 285 pounds, deadlifted and squatted 420 pounds, and hit 265 on the hang clean.
“I’m not really as strong as people think I am,” he said. “There’s people a lot stronger than me in my weight class. But you have to adjust to your opponent’s strength and style, and try to get them to play into your style.”
Pannell was a defensive role player and special teamer for the Fulton team that went 9-3 and reached the Class 2A quarterfinals in 2016. He stepped into a larger role as a junior, helping the Steamers to a 7-4 record and the second round of the 1A playoffs.
Going into his senior season, Fulton returned just two starters on offense – Pannell and end Larson Barnett – and just one (Pannell) on defense from the 2017 squad. Seven sophomores stepped up to the varsity level in 2018.
“He was the only returning senior that played on both sides of the ball and had a ton of experience from last year,” Lower said of Pannell. “He was the leader on the field, and the cornerstone of our lines.”
Pannell played defensive end in the Steamers’ 4-4 system up until his senior year, but moved to the interior as a senior out of necessity. He still racked up 72 tackles (46 assists), three sacks, a whopping 24 tackles for loss and one fumble recovery – all while opponents schemed against him.
“It was a little weird getting used to,” Pannell said. “It’s just a lot easier to fly off the edge instead of fight your way through on the interior. I didn’t get as many tackles as I did the previous year.”
One moment that stood out in the 2018 campaign was when Pannell made Orion coach Chip Filler throw his headset in frustration after a tackle for loss.
“He was a game-wrecker,” Lower said. “There were a couple games where teams would get a big run and put our backs against the wall, then Eli would burst into the backfield for a 5-yard loss on the next play, and run down a back for a 3-yard loss on the following play.”
Offensively, Pannell was a road-grating right guard for running backs Ethan Rash, Kyler Pessman and Nick McQuistion, and quarterback Max Lemke.
“I used to tell Ethan that all he had to do was follow me up the middle and he’d be good,” Pannell explained. “I want to get big hits and make the crowd go crazy, or get that block that springs our back for a touchdown.”
Fulton finished the regular season 5-4, ultimately bowing out to Milledgeville in the first round of the 1A playoffs. Lower compared Pannell to a five-tool baseball player on the gridiron. Wins above replacement is a metric often used to determine the value of a baseball player, and Lower said Pannell was worth at least one win to the Steamers.
“We probably don’t make the playoffs without him. When we needed a yard going straight ahead, we ran behind Eli,” Lower said.
“Then since he’s so athletic, we could pull him left and right, and he could get out in front of and stay in front of our running backs. If you’re a 5-foot-10, 140-pound defensive back and he’s coming at you, it’s best to make a business decision and get out of the way.”
Todd Fleetwood – the father of talented twins Tyler and Taylor – urged Pannell to come out for wrestling in seventh grade. At first, it wasn’t smooth sailing for the eventual state champion.
“When he first started, we really had to work with his stance,” Fulton wrestling coach Chris Grant said. “It looked very clumsy and uncomfortable.”
Pannell was a 4-year varsity starter on the mat at Fulton, but hit his stride as a junior. He went 38-8 at 195 pounds, finishing sixth at the Class 1A state tournament and earning a new nickname from his coach after recording a single-season school-record 34 pins – “The Pin Master.”
Pannell won in triple-overtime in the quarterfinals at state, but lost his next three matches in what he termed “the semi slide.” He was assessed a penalty for stalling with 20 seconds left and lost 4-3 in the semifinals, then lost 7-3 to Beardstown’s Chad Grimm and 7-5 to Stillman Valley’s Drake Jennings.
Wrestling Greco style and freestyle in the offseason with the Moline Wrestling Club led to a memorable senior season for Pannell.
He only had to drop 5 pounds after his football season to make weight at 220. Max Pannell served as his older brother’s wrestling partner for the 2018-19 season.
“I think the best way to get in shape is to wrestle live matches,” Eli Pannell said. “Some people think it’s just running, and while that’s a good cardio exercise, it doesn’t compare to wrestling live.”
Eli Pannell relied on throws like the lateral drop, the arm drop and chicken wings en route to first-place finishes at the Sterling, Erie-Prophetstown, Kewanee and Polo tournaments. He also started hitting low singles toward the end of the season.
“I always go for pins,” Pannell said. “If I get someone on their back and the period doesn’t run out, chances are I will pin them.”
Pannell also possessed the ability to earn escapes against virtually any opponent thanks to his mix of speed, strength and technique.
“You need to have hand control and strong legs,” he said. “Keeping your head up when you stand up is also key to gain separation.”
Grant said the moment he believed Pannell could go undefeated and win a state title was a 6-1 win over Princeton’s Chase Tatum for the Sherrard Regional crown.
“It was a great match; it was tied 0-0 going into the third period,” Grant said. “He gut-checked and got a key reversal to win. That’s also when he started to believe he could beat those kind of kids.”
Pannell battled through a minor knee injury to beat Tatum 2-1 for the Byron Sectional title, earning him the second seed in the 220-pound bracket downstate.
Pannell pinned all four of his opponents in Champaign, starting with Lisle’s Kevin Paz in 3:01 and Farmington’s Broc Shymansky in 2:48 to reach the semifinals. His pin of Prairie Central’s Josh Woodrey in 1:54 broke Zach Ryder’s previous all-time FHS pins record.
Pannell earned his 87th and final pin of his Fulton career in the finals against Grimm at the 5:04 mark. He finished the season 39-0 with 33 pins, and 120 career wins as a Steamer.
In ancient Rome, crowds determined the fate of a defeated gladiator with either a thumbs up or thumbs down. Thumbs up meant the gladiator could live on. Thumbs down meant he was killed.
After his win over Grimm, Pannell did the thumbs down motion to the slew of Fulton fans and about 60 people associated with the Moline Wrestling Club. It was a signature moment that encapsulated a dominant season.
“I knew there were going to be a couple tough opponents I’d have to face,” Pannell said. “I always strived to be undefeated, and it’s amazing to have accomplished that goal.”
Pannell become the fourth Steamer to win a state championship, and second in the last 4 years. Tyler Fleetwood won back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017; Butch Wingett won the first title in 1975, and Matt Kuebel was state champ in 1998.
Grant started coaching at Fulton 11 years ago, when the River Bend youth program only had 15-20 kids annually. That number has swelled north of 50 in a little more than a decade.
Eli Pannell’s graduation doesn’t exactly mean the cupboards are bare at Fulton. His cousin Jake Pannell is going to be a senior, Max will be a junior, and Eli’s youngest brother Zane will be a freshman.
“We have a fantastic feeder program,” Grant said. “It took some time to build, but I’ve got coaches down there that do an amazing job. It takes a village to build a program.
“This was just the first wave to come through. We have some talented freshmen coming in, and we’re confident that this next group is going to be even better than the last.”
Eli Pannell will attend Wartburg College and wrestle in the 285-pound heavyweight division for the Division III powerhouse. He’s bulked up to 235 pounds, with the intention of slowly gaining weight and turning it into muscle.
Pannell is also contemplating playing football for the Knights. He made seven tackles for the West squad in the Illinois High School Shrine Game on June 15 in Bloomington.
The following weekend, Pannell went 9-1 in the 225-pound division at the Disney Duals in Orlando, Florida – defeating five state champs and a runner-up along the way.
“I don’t think he’s done yet,” Grant said. “I honestly think he can be a national champion someday, and that’s going to be pretty awesome.”
High school: Fulton
Family: Parents Jennifer & Richard, brothers Max (16) & Zane (14)
Football FYI: Class 1A All-State and unanimous all-TRAC Rock as an offensive & defensive lineman. … 72 tackles (46 assists), three sacks, 24 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovery. …Right guard for a Steamers team that made the 1A playoffs. ... Part of 3 playoff teams in his final 3 years at Fulton.
Wrestling FYI: Won Class 1A state championship at 220 pounds with a 39-0 record (with 33 pins). ... Won all 4 matches at the state tournament by pin. …Finished 6th at 195 pounds with a 38-8 record as a junior. …Holds single-season (34) and career (87) school records for pins. …120 career wins.