By SCOTT JACKSON
Courier sports writer
---- — PEKIN — Turnovers. Turnovers. Turnovers.
Pekin head coach Joe Donovan knows just how painful turnovers in prep football can be at this time of the year.
Friday night, Donovan’s sixth-ranked Panthers learned the lesson the hard way in a battle for the Class A, District 6 championship. Not once, but twice in the second half, turnovers deep in BGM territory thwarted what appeared to be promising potential scoring drives.
Instead, the end results were no points and no district title. The late miscues stalled the Panthers’ seven-game winning streak and allowed the second-ranked Bears to cap a perfect regular season with a 19-7 victory at Tom Stone Field.
“The one thing we just can’t afford to do is turn the ball over, especially at this time of the year,” Donovan said. “You can’t afford to do those things in games like this. That’s just the way it goes.”
Friday’s game was expected to be a test of wills with BGM sporting 1,000-yard rusher Jack Kline while Pekin brought its own vaunted ground attack into the contest. In the end, Pekin won that battle as Kline failed to top the century mark, stopping at 94 yards with a long run of 15 as BGM rushed for just 79 total yards against a stout Panther defense.
“We were pretty stout against a team that has been able to run on anybody whenever they’ve wanted to all season long,” Donovan said. “We talked about not allowing creases on defense and for the most part, we did a good job of keeping Kline contained. I’m proud of my kids and I’m proud of my coaches for putting together and executing a solid game plan.”
But on a cold, windy night, it was the arm of BGM quarterback Bryan Kriegel that ended up making a huge difference. The senior signal caller completed his first four passes on an opening drive that went 55 yards, hitting Colton Ryan and Mayson Sherwood for big plays that set up a one-yard sneak by Kriegel to put BGM up 7-0.
“It wasn’t great as far as conditions go, but you just have to make the throws to be there for your guys,” Kriegel said after finishing with 148 yards passing. “I just had to make my reads quick. I’ve been struggling with that this year. I just had to get the ball out quick.”
It was the passing game that allowed Pekin to answer back and Kolby Allsup hit Christian Wittrock on a beautiful 46-yard completion to set up a Wittrock seven-yard touchdown run, tying the game at 7-7. BGM methodically drove down the field midway through the second quarter and scored again on a second Kriegel one-yard sneak to regain a 14-7 lead.
Pekin’s first of three turnovers helped set up a 36-yard field goal by Kyle Gritsch, as did a 19-yard third-down completion from Kriegel to Zac Freese. That 17-7 lead would be good enough to last most of the night.
It almost had to as Kriegel hit just two more completions the rest of the game, finishing 9-21 overall passing with a late-game interception.
Pekin, however, failed to do much on offense themselves aside from the big 46-yard first quarter pass play. That was until a late third quarter drive that included a Kolby Allsup 21-yard run set up the Panthers up in the red zone with high hopes of finishing one of the two scoring drives they needed in the end zone.
Instead, Chase Copeland was stripped of the ball at the end of a six-yard run at BGM’s 13. The Bears had thwarted one Panther drive.
The very next drive ended even more painfully for Pekin. After reaching the Bears 21 in the fourth quarter, a third-down pass by Allsup was picked off by BGM sophomore Tyler Thompson to cap what proved to be Pekin’s last true offensive rally.
“I saw the receiver going out there and I just jumped the pass,” Thompson said. “It’s a big play. It gets us going once again when it seemed like we a little bit down,”
Both No. 2 BGM (9-0, 6-0) and No. 6 Pekin (7-2, 5-1) will be home for the opening round of the Class A playoffs on Wednesday. The Bears will host Van Buren (5-4), who culminated a magical regular season Friday night with a 44-8 victory over Danville that will send a Warrior football program that was without a team just a few seasons ago into the postseason for the first time ever.
Pekin, meanwhile, will host its first playoff game in a decade as Lone Tree (6-3) will provide the Panthers with the opposition. Pekin will be looking to snap a six-game playoff losing streak that dates back to the Panthers last postseason win, in 2002, against Joe Donovan’s Montezuma Braves.
“We had a great week of practice and, really, you can only get better from a game like this,” Donovan, now Pekin’s coach, said. “Facing a team like BGM in a game like this can only make us better for what we’re going to see on Wednesday.”
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