Ryan Costello, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
All along Pond Creek-Hunter football was supposed to be playing after Thanksgiving this season.
The Panthers had lost, decisively, to Davenport in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs, their season ending in 56-8 defeat to Class B’s eventual runner-up.
But Pond Creek-Hunter had its quarterback — a good one in junior-to-be Zach Rayner — and its running back — a great one in Brady Krittenbrink.
“Zach had a great year at quarterback as a sophomore, so going into the season, we thought with Zach back there, and we knew with Brady running the ball, we’d have some really good balance,” said Pond Creek-Hunter head coach David Kerr. “We expected high things from Zach.”
So an appearance in the Class B championship game 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Weatherford, one the Panthers earned with playoff shutouts of Paoli and Fox that sandwiched a 41-40 escape from Wetumka, isn’t a complete surprise.
But the way the Panthers got there is a different story altogether.
In a preseason scrimmage against Kremlin-Hillsdale, an exhibition meant only to prime the Panthers for the regular season, and eventually the postseason, Pond Creek-Hunter all but lost its hope for success in either.
“The doctor said it was like, you could do that a million times and it wouldn’t happen again,” Rayner said.
But that time, when Rayner — a defensive back when not a quarterback — brought down a Kremlin Hillsdale player, another player, specifically his helmet, was waiting.
Rayner’s throwing arm elbow came down on the hard ,plastic facing one way, the right way, and left it the other, the junior’s arm contorted and dislocated.
Aside from the pain, Rayner was worried about his football career.
“I had a lot of that going through my head,” he said. “I was thinking about the team. I was thinking, ‘Well, if I’m not able to throw a football again, I’ll find a way somehow to help the team.’”
Eventually he would.
Rayner’s replacement was one of his closest friends on the team, tight end and receiver Josh Irvin, who despite having a knack for success on a football field, had enjoyed little as a QB.
In rare mop-up duty opportunities as a sophomore, Irvin completed one of seven passes for 17 yards, not exactly the resume Rayner had: 21 touchdowns and 1,866 yards on 65 percent passing.
But that’s when Rayner found his next calling for the Panthers, quarterbacks coach.
Rayner, along with the Pond Creek-Hunter coaching staff, helped Irvin along, and after a slow start, the Panthers’ replacement quarterback has rivaled his mentor on the field, completing 63 percent of his passes for 1,494 yards and 19 touchdowns, against only five interceptions.
“It’s been pretty easy,” Irvin said. “I’ve got Brady back there in the backfield, just handing it off. It’s not too bad. There’s a lot of pressure, but I like it.”
“Josh is kind of one of those guys that just kind of knows, or has a knack for getting in the right place and doing the right things,” Kerr said. “He’s not the fastest guy in the world, but he just gets the job done, so we’ve been really pleased.”
When the playoffs started, Rayner found yet another way to help the Panthers, and especially Irvin.
In three games playing Irvin’s former role, Rayner has caught nine passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns, taking the mantle as one of his good friend’s favorite targets.
“I just like him,” Irvin joked before explaining further. “He seems to always get open. He just runs good routes, and gets open all the time.”
And it doesn’t hurt that Rayner is 6-foot-3 with a basketball player’s wingspan.
“I just have to get it around him. He can jump, he’s got great hands.”
The unique situation has made the Panthers’ “best buds” each other’s teachers.
“He helped me with some blocking assignments, and when Josh is confused with something at quarterback, I’ll tell him,” Rayner said. “If I have any problems at tight end, he’ll tell me, help me on some routes that I need to work on. We’ve just been helping each other, you know? It’s been nice, I’m filling in for him, he’s filling in for me.”
Up next is finding whether Rayner, Irvin and the rest of the Panthers have learned the only lesson they’ve been taught during a game this season, when Laverne beat the Panthers 36-18 on Nov. 2 for the B-1 title.
“We watch film in the mornings, and we don’t want to watch that film,” Rayner said. “We like to learn from it. That’s the key thing. When Laverne watches that film, there’s nothing they really could have done better to us. They blocked us, they did their job.”
“We’ve made some adjustments since the last time we played, and I think we’ve gotten better since the last time we played,” Kerr said.
“They’ve been so dominant all season long, I’m sure their confidence is sky-high, which it should be, because they have been the dominant team in Class B all year long.”
Which isn’t guaranteed to continue when the task demands beating the No. 2 team twice in a season, Laverne coach Tim Allen said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Your percentages against a good team like that are not as good. I just hope our kids come out and execute and play well.”
For either team, the members of which Irvin admits have exchanged friendly, if rib-jabbing, text messages in the weeks before Saturday’s title game, the motivation to do that is already there.
“It’s for the state title,” Kerr said. “I don’t know if you can get any more (motivational) than that.”