Off and running: Genenbacher’s first-play touchdown sets stage for Central’s playoff win


Camp Point Central running back Elijah Genenbacher runs throw a gaping hole on the left side of the line on the Panthers' first offensive play in a 54-0 rout of Bridgeport Red Hill in the opening round of the Class 1A playoffs Saturday in Camp Point, Ill. | Photo courtesy Mike Pritchard

CAMP POINT, Ill. — The first time Elijah Genenbacher touched the ball proved to be a harbinger of things to come Saturday afternoon.

For both Genenbacher and the Camp Point Central football team.

Genenbacher, a junior running back whose true passion is playing linebacker on defense, was handed the ball on Central’s first offensive play of the game. The 220-pounder broke through a massive hole opened by the left side of the offensive line and ran virtually untouched 68 yards for a touchdown.

“I knew it was going to be a good day,” said Genenbacher, unable to contain an end zone-to-end zone grin.

Genenbacher finished with four touchdowns — three of them on his first three carries — to trigger the Panthers’ 54-0 rout of Red Hill in the first round of the Class 1A playoffs. All but two minutes of the second half was played with a running clock.

The victory boosted Central to 10-0, providing the Panthers with their 13th straight home victory and the 23rd win in their last 24 games. The only black mark on that span was a 30-8 loss in the 2022 state championship game to Lena-Winslow.

One of Genenbacher’s biggest fans is his coach, Brad Dixon.

“He can run,” Dixon said in an unintended understatement. “And he keeps getting better. We moved him to (running back) late last year, and at the start of this season, we had him at tight end.”

Eventually, Dixon felt Genenbacher, when playing offense, was best suited to be a running back.

Obviously, that was an excellent assessment. 

Genenhacher rushed for 129 yards on just eight attempts against Red Hill, a healthy 12.9 average per carry. His other touchdown runs came on bursts of 3, 1 and 6 yards.

Genenbacher leads Central with 15 touchdowns and 106 total points. 

On the defensive side of the ball, Genenbacher has been an integral figure since day one of his still-developing varsity career. He’s the ringleader of a Panthers defense that has shut out 11 opponents over the past two seasons.

“I probably enjoy playing defense the most,” said Genenbacher, an extremely active linebacker who leads the Panthers in tackles. “I love making the stops on defense.”

Offensively, Genenbacher has run for 563 yards, including three 100-yard games. He’s one of a talented collection of Panther ball carriers. Central has seven backs with more than 200 yards rushing. Fifteen different players have run the ball this season for Central — nine of them underclassmen.

Senior Drew Paben, who is the team’s leading rusher, scored on the game’s longest touchdown run against an overmatched Red Hill defense. Paben ran away from a host of defenders during an 87-yard scoring sprint early in the game.

Paben only carried the ball four times, but finished with 141 yards. He has run for a team-high 824 yards this season in just 58 carries, an eye-popping 14.2 yards per try. Paben (13) trails only Genenbacher in touchdowns scored.

Central’s other touchdowns came via a 62-yard run from junior Nate Peters and a 13-yard blast by Konnor Bush.

“Our speed was a big difference,” Dixon said. “It was a real factor (against Red Hill’s defense). We have a lot of weapons.”

Central, which has won 10 or more games in seven of Dixon’s 13 years at Camp Point, will face Western Illinois Valley Conference foe Hardin Calhoun at 2 p.m. next Saturday in the second round of the playoffs. The game will be on the shores of the Illinois River in Hardin.

Central defeated Calhoun 30-22 back on Sept. 1, by far its closest game of the season.

“It’s tough to beat a team two times in the same season, but I think we’ll be fine,” Genenbacher said. “We’ll be prepared.”

Dixon is not underestimating Calhoun, which is 7-3 after a 42-14 win over Heyworth on Saturday.

“Calhoun is a tough place to play, and it will be their first home playoff game since 2016,” Dixon said.

Central has beaten Calhoun in their last five meetings. The Panthers have not lost to Calhoun since 2017 when they dropped a 16-14 overtime verdict.

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