PENDLETON — Pendleton Heights High School football players are buying into what second-year coach Jed Richman is selling them.
The results have been tangible, including a four-win improvement in the regular season and a team that has been competitive in every game this season as it heads into postseason play.
Having a spectacular playmaker like Eli Pancol hasn't hurt the cause, either.
Pendleton Heights, 6-3, will host Lebanon, 7-2, in the Sectional 21 opener. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at John Broughton Field.
Two of the Arabian losses have been by one score and even in a 20-point loss at Class 5A No. 5 New Palestine, Pendleton Heights was a blocked punt away from being tied late in the third quarter. Richman says the biggest improvement in this team has been in its competitive nature and tenacity.
"Honestly, it's just been some good old wholesome hard work," he said. "These guys have worked their butts off. When our best players are our hardest workers and they're doing the right things on and off the field, good things are going to happen."
At the top of that list is Pancol. The 6-5 junior, already a star basketball player, decided to play football this year for the first time since the seventh grade. The results include 36 receptions for 734 yards, four interceptions and a fumble recovery on defense, and over 200 yards in kick returns. He has scored 16 touchdowns, 14 receiving and one each on an interception and a kick return.
Richman says Pancol, who also ran track last spring, brings an element of athleticism that the Arabians had been lacking and adds a new dimension to the Pendleton Heights offense.
"On the field, he gives us a guy that stretches it vertically," Richman said. "On special teams and defense, he can take a guy away or give us a big play. He gives us a guy we can go to at any time."
Pancol, who came to practice raw, has improved throughout the season. No longer considered just a great athlete, he is now looked upon as a great football player, pairing up with junior Tristen Spinks (35 receptions, 373 yards, 3 TDs) as a formidable pair of receivers for quarterback Christian Conkling.
"Just in the last couple weeks, his routes were better and more crisp," Richman said. "I coach him hard and love him up. He takes the coaching the right way and applies it. He's been out here every day and working hard."
Pancol says he has learned the finer points of the game, including blocking, to help him get better throughout the season, which included a four-touchdown game to open the season against Muncie Central, an 11-catch for 199-yard game against Greenfield-Central, and 227 all-purpose yards last week against Shelbyville, including a 79-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"Now, I realize it's more of a team," Pancol said. "You have to rely on your blocks and you have to block for other people. I've become a better team player."
The Tigers come to town sporting a trio of seniors who have put up big numbers this season. Quarterback Levi Jones has thrown for over 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns, running back Jaylen Washington has rushed for 1,335 yards and 19 touchdowns, and receiver Ryan Poole has 32 receptions, including six touchdowns. But Richman says everything Lebanon does revolves around Washington.
"(Washington) is special," he said. "I really admire his toughness and patience. He's a big-play running back, but he's also got the toughness to grind it out three yards at a time. Everything goes off of him. Their quarterback is good and they have weapons outside, but it all comes off their running game and the offensive line."
Richman says the Lebanon offense mirrors the Arabian offense in many ways, with a solid running game, big-play receivers, and a strong offensive line.
"Their offense is built very similarly," he said. "It's going to come down to who is more disciplined and who makes plays."
Six of the eight sectional teams boast winning records, so there is no simple route to a title. But starting at home is fine with the Arabians.
"There is no easy way to get there," Richman said. "Anytime we can play at home, that's a good thing. That doesn't matter, I'd play them in the parking lot if I had to."
Pancol is hoping to end his first football sectional opener with a musical number.
"I just want to hear them sing along with us after we win," Pancol said, referring to the student section.