OTTUMWA — The first year of the RPI system proved just how rugged the road through Class A, District 6 was to navigate.

During the course of last season, all six teams in the district spent time ranked in the top 10 of the entire state by the RPI. Cardinal, who would not win a game in district play, entered with the second-best statewide Class A ranking by the system after starting the season with four straight wins.

Pekin would hand the Comets a district-opening loss, a win that made the Panthers the best team in the district in the RPI rankings. The Panthers would win just one more game the rest of the season as Durant, BGM and Highland all navigated their way from District 6 into postseason play.

“I don’t know that there’s a bottom to our district,” Pekin head coach Brent Blakely said. “That’s what makes it challenging. That’s what you want to be a part of. I think the kids that we have know that every week, someone out there is circling our name. We’re going to get everyone’s best shot every week.”

The strong starts of both the Panthers and Comets kept both teams in high-stakes games throughout the course of the year. Cardinal came up one win shy of its first winning regular season since 2009 while Pekin, despite finishing 5-4, still had a chance to qualify for an at-large playoff bid on the final night of regular season play before falling to Durant at Tom Stone Field.

“It could very easily be the same way this year for everyone in the district. We were in the conversation right up until the end,” Blakely said. “That’s what you want to do. You want to improve every week and give yourselves that chance to qualify for the postseason.”

Eckley, Panthers look for strong finish

It took less than one half of football last season for Dayne Eckley to jump to the top of every opposing team’s scouting report.

Before halftime had arrived in the 2018 season-opening ‘Backyard Brawl’ with Sigourney-Keota, Eckley had over 150 yards rushing including an 86-yard touchdown run. By the end of the night, Eckley had amassed a state-best 302 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 31-12 win over the Cobras, setting the table for a 1,000-yard rushing junior season.

“To open up the season like that was phenomenal. It really set the bar really high for what we were capable of doing,” Eckley said. “Ultimately, we were just a couple plays away from meeting those goals. We know we’re right there. We just have to step it up this season.”

Pekin’s 5-4 season featured a 28-21 road loss at Mediapolis in which the Panthers gained 407 yards on the ground, but also committed three turnovers and allowed a hook-and-ladder touchdown at the end of the first half. In district play, Pekin fell to Highland, 23-21, on a touchdown pass from Trey Lasek to Cole Adamson with 1:24 remaining, less than a minute after a go-ahead touchdown run by Eckley. The Panthers could not build off an early touchdown pass by Caleb Comstock in a 28-13 road loss at BGM.

“We were probably a handful of plays away from being 7-2 and on our way to the playoffs,” Eckley said. “It just seemed like little things continued to derail us. We can’t be on a roller coaster all season. Once we set the bar high, we need to stay at that high level. We have to keep chasing what we want. We can’t fall behind and we can’t slip at all.”

Eckley was the only Panther to gain over 1,000 yards of offense, rushing for 1,477 yards on 174 carries while scoring 13 touchdowns. Kennan Winn, the team leader with four touchdown catches last season, joins Eckley, Quinton Kopp, Matt Long and Levi Rohr as the only seniors on a younger squad looking to contend in perhaps the toughest district in Class A.

“Being young in a lot of positions, we’ve got to get really good in the fundamentals in a lot of positions,” Blakely said. “Our staple at Pekin football is being fundamentally sound. We’re going to be asking some kids to step out of position and try different things, but the one thing we can always fall back to is playing the game the right way. If we can do these things fundamentally well, we have an excellent chance at being successful.”

Comets look to continue program growth

When Pekin and Cardinal open district play against each other at Tom Stone Field on Sept. 27, the Panthers may very well win the game. It won’t be because of superior depth or experience, however, as the Comets match up almost evenly with Pekin in both categories this year.

Cardinal has over twice as many seniors as the Panthers, 12 to 5, and have almost as many players with 33 compared to Pekin’s 40. After winning four games for just the third time in 15 years, the Comets begin a new football season with high hopes for producing a winning year on the gridiron in 2019.

“We played or started six freshmen last year. All six are coming back,” Cardinal head football coach Landon Miller said. “You put all those things together and you’ve got a formula that says we should make another jump just like we did last year.”

Cardinal will be looking to snap a five-game losing streak when it opens the season against Van Buren. The Comets had won five straight games prior to a district-opening home loss to Pekin, a streak that brought with it a new level of excitement for the school and one Miller hopes can extend into this season with another successful start.

“It’s not going to be easy. Teams like Van Buren, Wayne and North Mahaska are all going to be out to get revenge against us this year,” Miller said. “When you look at our district, it’s a gauntlet. We were the only district in Class A with three playoff qualifiers. That tells you everything you need to know.”

While Cardinal will have to replace Trey Albert at quarterback, Maddux Jones got some time running the offense last year as a freshman. Jones and Griffin Greiner both debuted on the varsity level last fall as the top two receivers for the Comets with Greiner hauling in a team-leading 412 yards on 23 receptions with five touchdowns as a freshman, setting up a potential passing threat for Cardinal that may only get better over the next three seasons.

Gabe Reyes is also back after leading the Comets with 454 rushing yards on 89 carries. Reyes, Greiner, Jones, Blaine Bryant and Ben Clark all had touchdowns last year and all return in Cardinal red and black this season.

“We have to go prove it now. The recipe is there to be competitive, but the kids have to work at it,” Miller said. “This is something Cardinal football hasn’t been at for a long time as a team with high expectations. When you hear people about what Cardinal athletics use to be like, you have to coach kids to work to meet high expectations. Schools like BGM and Pekin are the kind of schools we want to be like each year, knocking on the door for the playoffs each year. Once we can get to that point, we’ll know we’ve arrived as a program.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.

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