Prep Impressions: Friday, Oct. 21, 2016

CORONA (Calif.) — Just when Corona High thought its program was headed in the right direction, the Panthers got a series of flat tires.

Corona, a six-win playoff team last season, began 2016 looking ahead to the race for a Big VIII League playoff spot.

Head coach Stephen Hill, well suited as the driver and now in his fourth year, had fully installed a better, smarter system and the results were about to show.

Senior RB Malik Walker was being touted as among the best in his class, junior QB Moses DeAnda a significant upgrade and senior WR Jeremiah Boatner was hailed as a sporty option package.

Sure, the Panthers had issues but they weren’t any better or worse than the other second-tier teams in the Big VIII.

Then Walker suffered a dislocated elbow in Corona’s preseason scrimmage.

Undeterred, the Panthers defeated MoVal Valley View, 42-17, to open the season. Senior Justin Johnson had replaced Walker and run for 75 yards and a TD in the win, and followed it up with 187 yards and three more TDs in a 49-36 victory over Riverside in Week 1.

It must’ve looked, at least momentarily, like Corona’s program was going to be able to sustain the loss of its most explosive player because they had developed some depth.

Then Johnson suffered and torn ACL late vs. Riverside North.

“Losing Malik was horrible, then losing Justin was horrible-er, horrible-est,” Hill said.

Without another spare in the trunk, the Panthers were forced to stay on the side of the road. DeAnda, emerging a capable passer, has been forced to mature quickly.

“I think where we’re at right now is a good test for the team,” Hill said. “It stinks and we’re still trying to rebuild and win games, and it’s hard to learn that lesson when you’re playing undefeated teams 3-4 weeks in a row.”

One loss turned into two has turned into six in a row. Week 8’s 64-14 loss at home to Corona Centennial was different only in that Boatner went over 1,000 receiving yards on the season.

Walker, who may still be the best backfield talent in the Big VIII, has since returned. But it’s late in the game.

“The perception is a loss is a loss, and it is hard to keep morale up,” Hill said. “But the older guys are starting to realize that it’s winding down and they need to make memories and finish up the year strong.”

They might be in a different position than they hoped, and held together by spit and duct tape, but the Panthers are headed toward the finish line.

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