PAOLA — Leading the Paola Panther football team onto the field Friday, Nov. 15, was honorary team captain Strong Wright.
Wright, a Paola Middle School seventh-grader, had a biopsy performed on a brain tumor earlier in the week. He has been an inspiration to the team.
The Paola Panther family surrounded Strong and his family Friday. Players, cheerleaders, dancers, students and fans wore “Strength for Strong” stickers with a football and folded hands in prayer.
Paola defeated Chanute to win the Class 4A sectional title, 42-34, advancing to the substate championship game for the 11th time in program history.
Paola (11-0) will play Bishop Miege (9-2) at Panther Stadium on Friday, Nov. 22.
“Sometimes we get caught up with a game, and forget there are people out there battling some pretty tough things,” Paola coach Michael Dumpert said.
The Paola Panthers made Strong one of their captains for the game, and he was the first one to run through the banner on the field with his arms raised high.
“It was fun,” Strong said. “That was pretty cool.”
Strong walked out to midfield with the Paola captains for the coin toss.
“God amazes us,” said Strong’s mother, Jennifer Wright. “Our hearts well with joy to see all the love, in and around Strong’s heart.
“We thank God, all the coaches and players who took the time to show Strong that they love and support him. In the picture of him running onto the field, you can see his arms raised in victory, breaking through. God is great.”
For the second week in a row, the Paola Panthers had some adversity to deal with in the sectional playoff game.
Chanute stripped the ball from a Paola back on the first series and returned the ball 77 yards for a touchdown.
Paola answered with a six-play, 80-yard drive capped with a 5-yard touchdown run by Evan Phillips. Ryan Wokutch’s kick tied the score at 7-7.
The Panthers had another old-school drive on their next possession, marching 78 yards on eight plays. Fletcher Aude ended the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run, putting Paola on top 14-7.
Chanute tied the game on a 36-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-14 with 9:21 left in the second quarter.
Paola nearly had the Chanute quarterback sacked on third down, but he escaped to keep the drive alive, and the Blue Comets capitalized.
Aude broke the tie with a 1-yard touchdown run, making it 21-14 with 2:51 left in the half.
Paola had a personal foul for a late hit out of bounds on the kickoff return, giving Chanute great field position.
The Panther defense chased after the Blue Comets quarterback and almost had another sack, but the elusive signal-caller got away. He threw a 34-yard touchdown pass on the following play to tie the game at 21-21.
Quarterback Ryan Sloan capped a 64-yard drive with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Bo Robison, giving Paola a 28-21 lead at the intermission.
The Blue Comets scored on a 15-yard touchdown run to open the third quarter, knotting the game again, 28-28.
Aude ended the third quarter with a 5-yard touchdown run as Paola wrestled the lead back, 35-28.
After a 33-yard run on first down, the Paola defense stopped Chanute. Linebacker Evan Peuser made a tackle for a 1-yard loss on first down. Linemen Mikey Stribling and Javier Castillo had a stop for a short gain on second down. Clayton Essex and Damarius Bassett had a quarterback sack on third down, forcing a punt.
Paola took over at its own 27-yard line.
The Panthers ran the next seven plays, covering 73 yards to seal the victory. Jovannie Blackie started the drive with a 15-yard run and ended it with a 2-yard touchdown run. The drive was a double-dose of backs Aude and Blackie. The two had six carries on the drive, averaging 8.1 yards a carry.
Chanute had a 31-yard touchdown run to make it a one-possession game, 42-34.
The Blue Comets tried an onside kick, and the Panthers recovered the football. Aude had a 20-yard run to pick up a first down, and Paola was able to run out the clock.
Phillips and Aude topped 100 yards rushing for the the Panthers. Phillips ran the ball 24 times for 218 yards and a touchdown. Aude had 28 attempts for 189 yards and three touchdowns.
Blackie had five carries for 38 yards and touchdown. Robison had one reception for a 23-yard touchdown. Brock Pitzer caught one pass for 31 yards.
Jake Karr led the Paola defense with seven tackles. Essex made six tackles. Jackson Earlywine and Peuser each had five tackles.