FNF : Centralia leans on defense for regular season finale

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CENTRALIA - The saying goes, "Defense wins championships."

The Centralia Panthers hold a similar mantra. The defensive line and secondary have played a pivotal role in Centralia's turnaround season. 

"Like the coaches always say, that's where it all starts," senior tackle Chase Harper said. "You have to dominate the line of scrimmage."

Erle Bennett is one of those coaches who has Harper's attention. Bennett has led the team for 26 years. 

"We know we can rely on the defense," Bennett said. "We've been very good against the run and very able to put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. We've been extremely consistent defensively and gotten better as the season's gone. We've been pretty physical on that side of the ball as well." 

The Panthers' 2014 campaign was a forgettable one: a 4-7 record overall, with only one win coming in their last seven games.

 "I guess Centralia's not really known for a losing record," junior defensive end Sam Hasekamp said. "Centralia and football go together like peas and carrots." 

 Hasekamp said the poor showing left a bad taste in many returning players' mouths. It inspired the team to take a different approach in 2015.

 "We made it a goal, with weightlifting and everything, we just decided to be better than we were last year," Hasekamp said. "Honestly, I'm shocked at how far we've gotten this year. I didn't think we were going to be this good. I'm looking forward to seeing what the rest of the season can show."

Holding a 7-1 record heading into Week 9, Centralia has drawn honors. The Columbia Daily Tribune ranks the team 10th in its class. The most difficult wins have been among some of the players' favorite moments. For example, the team eked by Brookfield, 13-12 in Week 4. The Panthers also had a nail-biter victory, 7-6, two weeks ago against Palmyra.

 "When our backs are against the wall, we come up big," senior center Ryan Lincoln said. "We play fast and physical. A lot of teams try to run the ball on us and we don't usually give up much in the run game, just 'cuz we're there and we get them on the ground. We defend the pass pretty well, too. It's the team tackling there and getting [the opponent] to the ground." 

Bennett said it's not the individual talent on the team that sticks out, but rather the attitude his players bring to the field. He said the defensive line plays a smart form of football.

"They know sometimes their job is not to make the tackle, it's to make the play," Bennett said. "Keep the guys off the linebackers. They've been very disciplined all year."

Attitude has translated into a tangible, on-the-field advantage on both sides of the ball. Some players said they feed off the energy the Centralia crowd has given them this year.

"Our attitude, I think we just play like we're out there trying to make a statement," senior defensive end Logan Ross said. "Whenever we go out there we tell ourselves, 'Alright guys, we got four downs, let's get it done and over with' so we can get our offense back on the field." 

Bennett tries to mix and match several different line combinations, making sure his players are rested and he gets the most out of them. 

"We've got a lot of competitions for those defensive line spots, and they're fresh all the time, which is rare in high school where you can play that many kids," Bennett said. 

The Panthers have allowed 97 points to opposing teams this year. They've scored three times that number. Consistency will be paramount when postseason play begins next week.

"If we could get the offense rolling like it could be - we struggled a bit against Palmyra but we still won in a one-score ballgame," Lincoln said. "If we could hold people like we did [at Palmyra], and start scoring more, I think we could go a ways."

An impressive season means hopes are high for fans and players alike.

"Oh, I think we're set," Harper said. "I think we can take it all the way." 

The Macon Tigers will visit Centralia for a 7 p.m. kickoff Friday. Macon owns a 4-4 record overall (4-3 in conference play). Led by Coach Pete Claas, the team is coming off a commanding 49-28 win against Louisiana High School. The Tigers have scored at least 20 points in every game this season.

Macon defeated Centralia when the two teams met in 2014, 42-35.