Panther defense forces four turnovers in win over Whitewater

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Early in the fourth quarter, senior wide receiver and defensive end Dion Munerlyn reaches for the ball after he fumbled on a run against Whitewater. It was his first game playing defensive end after switching from cornerback.

Jack Fletcher, Sports Co-Editor

If the first game for sophomore running back Nick Brown and his Panther teammates is any indication for the rest of the season, then they are in for a ride. Starr’s Mill beat Whitewater on the road, 21-7, for the first win against the Wildcats in five years.

“There were some things I didn’t like, but we came away with the win,” Brown said. “Just some mental errors that we need to work on.”

Some of those mistakes started early in the game, as sophomore quarterback Joey DeLuca, making his first career start, did not see senior wide receiver Dion Munerlyn running uncovered down the field on the first drive, After the drive, Munerlyn talked to his quarterback about the play.

Sophomore quarterback Joey DeLuca, making his first high school start, moves the offense downfield in the first half of the game against Whitewater. He passes for 95 yards on eight attempt.
Sophomore quarterback Joey DeLuca, making his first high school start, moves the offense downfield in the first half of the game against Whitewater. He passed for 95 yards on eight attempts.

“He told me to keep my head up,” DeLuca said. “I made a couple mistakes because it’s my first game, but he told me that it was alright and to keep doing what I’m doing.”

The teams traded possession through the first quarter, with each team getting to the other side of the field once. Whitewater made it to the Panther 23-yard line on its second drive, but a fumble by running back Ian McIntyre gave the ball back to the Panthers. The Wildcat offense gave up possession again on its next drive, as senior safety Matt Mullins intercepted a low pass from Whitewater quarterback Nic Watson, giving the offense the ball back on the 27-yard line.

However, the Panthers were penalized for clipping and a false start, setting up second and 30 and a problem that would continue for the rest of the night. The Panthers were penalized 11 times for 130 yards, opposed to seven Whitewater penalties for 52 yards. Of the Wildcats 11 first downs on the night, six were because of Panther penalties.

“We’ve got to eliminate [penalties], but to be completely honest, I thought some of them were highly questionable,” Phillips said. “They are calls nevertheless and we have to correct that. You can’t beat a good team when you give up 130 yards of penalties.”

A third straight turnover for Whitewater gave the Panthers the ball on the 46-yard line after sophomore Ryan Cockes intercepted a wild pass by Watson. Brown, who ran for a career-high 164 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, set the Panthers up for the first score of the game, running 52 yards to the 2-yard line. Sophomore running back Rico Frye scored his first touchdown of the night the next play.

“I just trusted the play, trusted my lineman, and found the open space,” Brown said.

Two plays after the Panther defense forced another three-and-out, Brown broke loose again, this time 59 yards for a touchdown after splitting through three Wildcat defenders to put the team up 14-0.

“If you go back and watch those plays, two or three defenders jumped onto Rico on his fakes,” Phillips said. “Nick just has a knack for finding the seam and once he found that crease, he used his speed to outrun some people.”

Cornerback and wide receiver Satchel Goodrich forced Watson’s third interception of the night kept the Wildcats’ offensive struggles alive.

“We came out and played as hard as we could, and the scoreboard showed it,” Goodrich said. “I’m the happiest I can be that we beat Whitewater. That was one of my goals going into the season.”

The offense turned the ball over on downs after the interception, but the defense forced a Whitewater punt that gave the Panthers the ball back deep in their own territory on the 8-yard line.

On third-and-8, DeLuca found Munerlyn running free in the middle for an 87-yard pass, setting up Frye’s second touchdown of the night on the next play and a 21-0 lead with 2:05 left in the half. Frye finished with 48 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.

“I told him earlier that even though I was open, I respect that he has a certain job to do and he didn’t throw it to me there, but that next time, as a third option, he could look for me,” Munerlyn said. “He found me later in the game and we got some good yards.”

As the game resumed in the third quarter, it looked as if momentum could switch after DeLuca was picked off by Whitewaters’ McIntyre on the Panthers’ first drive of the half. However, McIntyre fumbled the ball on the return and Frye gained possession back for the Panthers. Nothing was gained, and the offense was forced to punt three plays later.

On the next Panther drive, McIntyre redeemed himself when he intercepted another pass from Deluca for a touchdown with 39 seconds left in the third quarter.

“That interception wasn’t a bad play, we just didn’t execute it right,” Phillips said. “Obviously, turnovers are something to be concerned about, but it’s something we’ll work on in practice this week.”

The Panther offense continued to struggle in the second half, turning the ball over for the third straight drive after Watson recovered a fumble by Deluca with just under 10 minutes left in the game. Although there was time to make a comeback, the Wildcats used nearly five minutes of the clock before being forced to punt. The Panther offense ran out the rest of the clock to notch the win in each teams’ opener.

“We haven’t beaten this team in five years and we came out and got the victory,” Munerlyn says. “We told everybody that we feel like we have a good chance to be successful this year, and we put up a great effort to get that first win.”

The Panthers’ switch back to an option-based offense was apparent through the game, as the team ran for 292 yards on 42 carries while passing the ball only eight times for 95 yards.

“Had it not been for two negative plays, we would have had over 400 yards of offense,” Phillips said. “I thought they did really well. The running backs were moving the ball up the field, the lineman were hustling into their blocks and the receivers were down the field blocking when they were supposed to as well.”

The defense was stellar as well, giving up less than 90 yards of Wildcat offense, under two yards per play.

Senior defensive end Dion Munerlyn and the Panther defense forced pressure early and often in the game against Whitewater, holding the Wildcats to under 90 yards of offense.
Senior defensive end Dion Munerlyn and the Panther defense forced pressure early and often in the game against Whitewater, holding the Wildcats to under 90 yards of offense.

“Our defense played extremely well,” Phillips said. “We have some guys with a lot of talent. All of our defensive backs played well, our defensive line created some good pressure and almost all of the guys are back with experience.”

This week the Panthers play Fayette County in their home-opener at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Panther Stadium as the first of three straight home games.

“I’m really excited to play in front of our home crowd,” DeLuca said. “It’ll be the first time ever for me, so hopefully we have a good crowd come out.”