Meet the 'tough as nails' linebacker patrolling the other side of the football for Pana
MOUNT ZION — If Max Lynch is what makes Pana’s football offense run, Evan Swisher is his counterpart on the defensive side.
“Great kid, great leader, tough as nails and our defensive quarterback, for sure,” Pana coach Trevor Higgins said. “He gets guys in the right positions, leads our team in tackles (and) fast to the ball. He’s everything you could want in a senior captain.”
Swisher, a middle linebacker and a fullback when he’s fully healthy, leads the Panthers (10-1) with 108 tackles after 109 last year in 12 games.
Fourth-seeded Pana practiced on the Mount Zion turf field on Wednesday to get acclimated to the field at No. 1 Decatur St. Teresa (11-0) for Saturday’s Class 2A quarterfinal game. The game pits Moweaqua Central A&M graduate Higgins against St. Teresa coach Mark Ramsey, his former A&M coach.
Focusing on defense
Swisher is sticking to just defense after starting the season as a fullback. Swisher has suffered from numerous in-game injuries all season, and the Pana staff values his defense so much that it’s not worth him getting hurt on offense.
Since getting nine carries in Pana’s 55-19 South Central Conference win over Greenville on Oct. 7, Swisher has run the ball just five times. But he had gained 395 yards and five touchdowns on 74 carries — a gain of 5.3 per run.
“We originally thought he was just going to be that bruiser, run downhill, run people over (type) but he came in this year with some speed,” Higgins said. “He’ll get you 8-10 yards if there’s a gap there.”
Swisher began playing football in fifth grade but remembers attending Pana football games long before then. A year later, his body started to change and he became a linebacker for the first time.
“I was a chunky little boy, but I thinned out a bit and sixth grade was my first year playing linebacker and I’ve been playing that ever since,” Swisher said.
Higgins said Swisher is the total package.
“He’s got the body, the strength, the mindset,” Higgins said. “Very well built and just loves football. He’s been a very good football player for us.”
Becoming a leader
While Swisher has the ability to deliver bone-crunching hits, his attitude is similar to the basketball player who can dunk but prefers the automatic points with a layup.
“I could put someone on their back if I needed to but I’m more concerned with getting the tackle, securing the tackle than getting the big hit,” he said. “At the end of the day, the big hit isn’t what matters; it’s whether you get the tackle or not.”
While his tackle numbers might be on par with last season, Swisher has added a new dimension this year.
“A lot more vocal as a leader (compared to 2021) so that’s nice to have,” Higgins said. “It’s easy to lead by example when you’re a hard-working kid but to get vocal with guys who are out of position, you have to let them know.
“It’s nice to have a vocal leader. It’s hard to get high school kids to talk, let alone lead vocally.”
Swisher conceded his numbers wouldn’t be anywhere near where they are without his defensive line. Higgins agrees.
“Connor McGlauchlen doesn’t get many stats at all, but he’s big, strong kid who requires a double team every play or he’s going to make a play,” Higgins said. “When you require a double team, it frees up your linebacker to read clearly and to have good field vision of where the ball’s going and come up and make plays.
“It’s nice to have defensive linemen like Connor at nose (tackle) and just take up two guys for you so your middle backer can read it.”
Back to the quarterfinals
Pana is on a 10-game win streak. The Panthers lost their season opener 34-10 to Vandalia before a quick course correction. Pana graduated a bunch of players from its 2A quarterfinal appearance a year ago and the team was still adjusting to new players in new roles. Two of the constants are Lynch and Swisher.
“I just knew it was going to be different the week after Vandalia,” Swisher said. “I think it put everyone in the right mindset after that loss. I felt like we were back to Panther football after and leading up to the Hillsboro game.”
St. Teresa is fresh off a 59-33 win in the second round at Athens. Swisher knows the Bulldogs will be the Panthers’ toughest test yet.
“They’re definitely the best team we’ve played so far this season,” Swisher said. "They’re really fast.”
Contact Ryan Mahan: 788-1546, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.