Panthers fall in first round of state playoffs, 45-10

Senior defensive end Cory Carter (51) receives a comforting pat from senior teammate Ashton Blackmon (41) in the closing moments of the Panthers 45-10 loss to Ware County.

Jack Fletcher and Dylan Hynson

The Panthers’ season ended in unfortunate fashion as they fell to Ware County, the number one team in classification AAAAA and a top 10 team in the state, 45-10.

“Our whole season, starting in summer workouts, our goal was to make it to the state playoffs, and we did that,” freshman running back Rico Frye said. “Win or lose, we had a great season.”  It was the teams’ first trip there since 2010.

Players, most notably the seniors, began to get emotional on the sideline as the game was winding down. Some players sat on the bench in disbelief that their season was over while others stood nearby doing their best to comfort them.

“It’s tough to lose that way,” senior defensive end Corey Carter said. “You’re in it for the whole game and then you lose that bad. There is going to be emotion for that scenario.”

The Panthers were within striking distance for much of the game, keeping the game within one or two scores until deep in the third quarter.

“I don’t think the score was anywhere near indicative of how close the game actually was,” head coach Chad Phillips said. “The last 15 minutes was where we lost. I’m just disappointed in how we imploded near the end. If we could have made an extra stop or two and eliminate turnovers, then it’s a tight game.”

On the opening possession, Ware County drove down the field on a 13-play, 62-yard drive that ate up six minutes of the first quarter. The Panthers stopped the Ware County attack on the 6-yard line, forcing a 23-yard field goal to put the Gators up 3-0.

The Panthers moved the ball up the field efficiently on their first possession, getting to the Gator 19-yard line before an offensive holding penalty tagged onto a 4-yard sack put them in a third-and-27 situation, pushing them out of field goal range.

After the Panthers held the Gators,  Ware County junior punter Skyler Dixon put his knee on the ground trying to pick up a low snap from the center, and that resulted in a first down for the Panthers on the Gator 25-yard line.

The Panthers worked their way to the 5-yard line, but the ball was knocked out of senior tight end Terence Harper’s hands on an incomplete pass from sophomore quarterback Stone Kasten on third down. Senior kicker Brandon Oot tied the game at 3-3 after with a 22-yard field goal.

The teams traded punts on each of their next possessions, the second of which pinned the Gators on their own 8-yard line. The offense wasn’t fazed, however, as Ware County stormed down the field in seven plays and scored the first touchdown of the game on a 22-yard run by junior running back Tyler Rawls. The extra point increased the Gator lead to 10-3 at the half.

“We were feeling really good [going into halftime],” Phillips said. “We were only losing by seven to the top team in the region and we were playing hard. I felt good about how we played in the first half.”

Despite taking two trips to the red zone on three total possessions in the first half, the Panthers came away with three points.

“It was disappointing to us, but fortunately we held them to three points before that touchdown with a minute to go,” Phillips said. “When you play a team as good as them, you’re not going to get that many opportunities,  so we needed to score at every chance we got in the red zone.

The coaching staff made a notable adjustment to start the second half by putting junior utility player Satchel Goodrich in at quarterback. After an unproductive first drive, Kasten returned to his spot at quarterback and remained there for the rest of the game.

“We were trying to run an option,” offensive coordinator Brent Moseley said. “We just couldn’t get anything going so we went back to Kasten.”

The Panthers tried to keep momentum going in their favor but were forced into a three-and-out on their first possession. On fourth down, a bad snap was recovered on the ground by Ware County senior defensive back Terrence Dukes, who ran two yards for a touchdown to increase the Gator lead to 17-3 with 10:23 left in the third quarter.

Dylan Hynson
Senior punter Mitch Pattison fights for a loose ball after a fumbled snap, but was unsuccessful as the Gators picked it up for a touchdown.

“We came out of halftime with all that momentum and with us getting the ball, and then all of a sudden it’s 17-3 and they haven’t even had the ball yet,” Phillips said. “It was a rough beginning to the half, but the boys kept playing and fighting hard.”

After a punt from each team on the next two possessions, the Gators forced another fourth-and-long for the Panthers. However, the Panthers called a fake punt. Senior punter Mitch Pattison found Goodrich over the middle for a 60-yard catch to put them on the Gators’ 3-yard line. Two plays later, Frye scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 17-10.

“That’s a play we’ve been practicing for at least a month,” Phillips said. “It was a beautiful throw by Mitch (Pattison) and a good catch and run by Satchel (Goodrich). Everyone on the field did exactly what they were coached to do.”

Ware County answered right back on the next possession, going on a six-play, 55-yard drive capped off by a 3-yard touchdown run by senior running back Quayshawn Taylor to extend the Gators’ lead to 24-10.

Things took a turn for the worse on the next three offensive possessions when Starr’s Mill turned the ball over three times during the course of nine offensive plays.

Frye fumbled while fighting for extra yardage on the first play after the Gators’ touchdown and Ware took full advantage of its good field possession, scoring a touchdown on an 8-yard run by Rawls to put Ware County up 31-10 with 1:14 left in the third quarter.

On the next possession, Frye lost another fumble but Ware senior fullback Laban Faulk fumbled two players later, and the Panthers got the ball back. But Kasten threw into coverage on the next play and his pass was intercepted by senior defensive back Kent Jackson, who returned it 51 yards for a touchdown with 9:38 left in the fourth quarter to increase the Gator lead to 38-10.

Ware County forced a Panther punt on the next possession and drove 84 yards down the field  in  10 plays. The drive ended with a 9-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Alyx Sayles with 2:04 left in the game to put the finishing touches on the Gators’45-10 win.

The Gators’ ground game amassed 295 yards compared to the Panthers’ 152. Frye had 58 yards on 21 carries.

“Both teams really burned the clock, which was our game plan from the start,” Phillips said. “We wanted to keep the ball away from them and we did, but they kept it away from us, too.”

The Panthers finished the year with a 6-5 record, which is an improvement over last year’s 4-6 record. Although the season did not end as well as the players had hoped, their success has the coaches looking ahead on both sides of the ball. The defense will be returning much of the starting lineup next year. Many of the starters were juniors, including Goodrich and linebacker Melvin Broomfield.  The offense is bringing back many of its starters, including Kasten and junior running back Dion Munnerlyn.  Frye,  who broke the school record for most rushing yards by a freshman running back in a single season, will be a sophomore.

    “I had a great season, looking back on it,” Frye said. “It wasn’t the end we wanted, but we as a team had a great season. I wouldn’t have been able to break that record without my lineman going out and working hard everyday.”

“All of our play-makers are coming back on offense, except for Terence (Harper),” Phillips said. “Hayden Faith, our starting center, and Jared (Inya-Agha), who was on the offensive line, are the other two seniors on offense we’re losing.”