GREENTOWN — Even as Eastern’s football team saw its historic season come to a screeching halt Friday night, the Comets had plenty of reasons not to hang their heads.
In the moments immediately following its 42-12 loss to No. 8 Eastbrook in the Class 2A Sectional 36 championship at Cogdell Field, No. 9 Eastern could look back at some of the game’s momentum shifts — a 30-yard Comet field goal attempt veering just wide right, a botched punt attempt setting up the Panthers with prime position for a quick score, an errant pass to the end zone stalling a strong drive late in the third quarter — and realize they were still within a pair of scores early in the second half against one of the state’s most successful programs.
In the end though, it was those kinds of miscues that allowed Eastbrook all the momentum it needed in securing its fourth straight sectional title and 15th overall. The Panthers are two wins away from going to the State Finals for the third time in four years.
“They’ve been here, done this,” Eastern coach Josh Edwards said of the Panthers. “That’s our goal. We want to make this an annual thing, to get to this game and that way our kids are used to it and they’re prepared for this type of setting. I think we’re closing the gap, we’re making ground but I think this game shows we’re not quite there yet.”
That showed early on as Eastbrook (10-2) scored on each of its first four possessions on the way to a commanding 28-0 lead, running at will against a Comet defense that entered the game surrendering a scant 9.4 points per game. The Panthers opened the game with a 10-play, 92-yard drive that chewed up just over three minutes of game clock.
“I’ll be honest, it’s just a matter of speed,” Edwards said. “It’s very difficult to simulate the speed in practice and if you noticed, it took us two or three series to kind of adjust to their speed. I felt like our kids did a good job of that. Made a few adjustments at halftime and made some stops, had a few scores.”
It didn’t help that Eastern (11-1) was stagnant on offense early, failing to capitalize on its first three possessions as the Comets turned the ball over on downs, missed a 30-yard field goal attempt and followed that with a bad snap on a punt attempt that set the Panthers up at the Comet 12.
“We felt we needed to get a fast start, kind of make them play from behind a little bit,” longtime Eastbrook coach Jeff Adamson said. “The punt over the head got us an extra one maybe.”
Eastern found life late in the first half as they strung together an eight-play, 75-yard that culminated with a four-yard touchdown toss from Nolan Grubb to Ethan Jones with :29 to play in the half. Junior running back Zane Downing keyed the drive with a 43-yard run.
Downing gave the Comets serious life when Eastern opened the second half with good field position at its own 40 and Downing took the first play from scrimmage 60 yards to paydirt, breaking through several Eastbrook defenders on his way to getting the Comets within 28-12.
Downing finished with 227 yards on 28 carries. Eastbrook countered with a running game that amassed 388 yards with a four-man committee. Wyatt Stephenson rushed for 140 yards and a TD, Isaiah Dalton had 127 yards and a score, Ezekial Binkerd finished with 62 yards and a pair of scores, and quarterback Dylan Bragg had 28 yards and a pair of touchdown runs.
“For us defensively we were focusing a lot of attention on Downing, even if it didn’t look like it,” Adamson said, “and trying to limit how many times he could touch it or at least make sure we had enough guys at the line of scrimmage to keep him contained. But I thought their offensive line played really well. Good team, man.”
With the score 28-12, Eastern stopped Eastbrook on fourth-and-3 when junior Jaeden Hannah made a big tackle, but the Comets couldn’t capitalize and had to punt on their next possession.
“We’re down by two scores and we made a stop and couldn’t finish,” Edwards said. “We couldn’t finish a lot of drives. I think that was the big thing.”
Following a Panther punt, the Comets again had a chance to make it a one-score game, but Binkerd picked off a Grubb pass in the end zone. Eastbrook capitalized on the turnover, scoring on the opening play of the fourth quarter and adding another score on its next possession to create a comfortable lead.
“Our kids did an outstanding job of battling and not quitting but I also say kudos to Eastbrook’s defense for holding us in the red zone and keeping us out of the end zone,” Edwards said. “I told the kids to play with their head and play with their heart and I believe they did that.
“Our seniors have helped resurrect our program and our underclassmen have bought in and I couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”
Eastern was playing in its first sectional final since 2001.