Massaponax football coach Eric Ludden requires his players to keep an agenda to track their academic schedules.
On Friday, the Panthers’ itinerary will look a little bit different.
Around 11 a.m., after an early lunch, the Panthers will board a charter bus bound for eastern Pennsylvania to take on Penn Wood (Pa.). The nearly four-hour road trip became a necessity after Massaponax (2-1) was unable to schedule a local opponent with the same open date.
This winter, Ludden and assistant coach Drew Young began inquiring with schools in neighboring states looking for takers. They almost settled on a game in Baltimore before Penn Wood (3-1) emerged as a perfect match.
“We looked at it as an opportunity for these guys to grow a little bit, get out of the area and see some other parts of the country in general, and also how other people play football,” Ludden said. “That was a silver lining.”
Beyond exposure, the trip includes another perk. Ludden has arranged for the Panthers to conduct their walkthrough at nearby West Chester (Pa.) University. They’ll eat dinner on campus, then drive the short distance to Penn Wood for pregame meetings.
“Being able to warm up on a college field gets the heart pumping and ready to play some football,” senior linebacker Jacob Carmichael said.
Per standard practice, the Panthers and Patriots exchanged two game films to gain a modicum of familiarity heading into Friday’s contest; the Virginia High School League will use Penn Wood’s enrollment to calculate power points, said VHSL director of communications Mike McCall.
“You have the film, but you really don’t know much else,” Ludden said.
But the Panthers are certainly aware of Penn Wood quarterback Desman Johnson. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Johnson was named first all-state last season after passing for nearly 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns. And he’s far from the Patriots’ only weapon on offense.
“They have a really wide-open offensive attack,” Ludden said. “They’re in empty [sets] a lot and have a lot of good skill [position players]. And they have a really big quarterback.”
When it comes to stopping Johnson on the ground, Carmichael pointed to the Panthers’ success bottling up another big-bodied runner, Chancellor’s Krisshaun Scott. Massaponax held the bruising Scott to just 58 yards in both teams’ season opener.
“If we read [Johnson] right and get him behind the line of scrimmage before he gains a lot of momentum, I think we’ll be solid,” he said.
The Panthers’ defense should have the services of junior Jacob Romero, albeit in a limited role. Romero, a standout running back and defensive back, was hurt in a win over Dinwiddie on Sept. 7 and sat out last week’s loss at Louisa. Injured fullback Josh Hale won’t make his season debut on Friday, Ludden said, and the timetable for his return remains unclear.
After heartbreak took the form of a blocked field goal last week, there was perhaps no better time for the Panthers to get some distance—physically and mentally—from Mineral.
“I think it’s a good rebound game,” Carmichael said. “We’re definitely going to recover from Louisa. We’re going to play our hardest and hope for a win.”
Locally, Massaponax’s reputation as a program—five undefeated regular seasons and four regional championships in 21 years—precedes it. But Friday’s game represents an opportunity to put the Panthers on the map. Literally.
“Everybody in the county knows Massaponax football,” Carmichael said. “Massaponax has had a great history of football, and I think we deserve to get our name out there. I’m hoping to really show the country that we’re a good team and we play hard.”