Region championship brings GHSA State Playoffs back to the Mill

Panthers defeat Tigers 35-21 to close out regular season

Panther+offense+huddles+before+a+play+against+Fayette+County.+%E2%80%9CI+think+this+game+was+probably+the+best+game+%5Bthe+offensive+line%5D+has+had+all+year%2C%E2%80%9D+junior+quarterback+Joey+DeLuca+said.+

Aelise Gagliano

Panther offense huddles before a play against Fayette County. “I think this game was probably the best game [the offensive line] has had all year,” junior quarterback Joey DeLuca said.

Rilee Stapleton, Staff Writer

The Panthers’ record of 6-4 doesn’t tell the whole story of this Starr’s Mill football team, as they will be hosting their first home playoff game since 2010, the year they reached the AAAAA State Championship game. After Friday’s win over the Tigers, the Panthers have a 5-1 region record, good enough to take 1st place in region 3-AAAAA. Fayette County fell to 4-5-1, and 2-4 in the region.

“They have invested a great amount of time [in football],” head coach Chad Phillips said. “I told them [that], if they’re willing to dedicate themselves to a cause and willing to work and willing to overcome some adversity, anything is possible.”

Junior running back Nick Brown bursts through a gap for a big gain against the Tigers. Brown’s 88 yards on Friday night pushed his season total to 876 yards to go along with his nine touchdowns throughout the regular season.
Aelise Gagliano
Junior running back Nick Brown bursts through a gap for a big gain against the Tigers. Brown’s 88 yards on Friday night pushed his season total to 876 yards to go along with his nine touchdowns throughout the regular season.

Juniors Cole Gilley and Nick Brown continued to lead a loaded backfield against the Tigers. Gilley rushed for 105 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries and Brown accounted for 88 yards on 17 rushes, including one touchdown.

Junior running back Jalil Dabney led Fayette County’s offense, rushing 17 times for 145 yards and one touchdown. Senior quarterback Malcolm Easterwood threw for 21 yards and a score while running for 24 yards and another touchdown.

“This offense is a four-back offense,” Phillips said. “It’s designed so that if you stop one back, we can hurt you with others, which is the beauty of [our offense].”

The Panthers took the opening kickoff, and like in previous weeks, they looked to get a head start on their opponents. During the drive, the Panthers were held to a fourth-and-one, in which they decided to go for it and junior quarterback Joey DeLuca picked up the first down on a 1-yard rush.

On the following play, DeLuca broke off a 38-yard run to put the Panthers in scoring position. Four plays later, Brown scored on a 3-yard run into the endzone. After their 12-play, 81-yard drive, the Panthers held a 7-0 lead with 6:28 left in the first quarter.

Fayette County had two penalties on their first offensive possession, and struggled to get going against the Panther defense. In six plays they lost three yards, and ended up punting the football back to Starr’s Mill.

“We have to get a good week in at practice,” DeLuca said. “We’ve done that for the past couple weeks and we’ve done well in the first half [of those games].”

‘[Our offense is] designed so that if you stop one back, we can hurt you with others.’”

— head coach Chad Phillips

The Panthers didn’t slow down on their second possession, marching 42 yards in nine plays. At the goal line, they called on the region’s leading rusher in Gilley, and he responded with his 18th touchdown of the season. The score came at the 11:28 mark in the second quarter, and increased the Panther lead to 14.

The Tigers desperately needed to respond before the game got out of hand, but couldn’t pick up any offensive yards on their possession. After three run plays, Fayette County looked at a fourth and 10, and were forced to punt again.

“We started out very strong,” Phillips said. “We played very well on offense and defense.”

The Panther offense seemed to slow down as they tried to pass, but DeLuca missed two passes. The Panthers were forced to punt, and their defense took the field again. The Tigers offense seemed to get going, as Easterwood scrambled for a 27 yard gain.

However, the drive ended without any points for Fayette, as the possession resulted in a missed field goal with 4:20 left in the first half. The Panthers’ offense took the field at their own 20-yard line. With the end zone 80 yards away, the Panthers started doing what they do best, running the football.

Brown started the drive with a 21-yard run, and two plays later freshman Khalen Sims bursted through a gap in the Tiger defense for a 22-yard gain.  DeLuca finished off the drive with a touchdown pass to junior Brandon Rew. The score put the Panthers up 21-0, the score that would hold until halftime.

“[Our passing game] adds a second thing that teams have to look at,” DeLuca said. “Since we’re run heavy, they don’t concentrate on the pass coming, so it’s usually open.”

Members of the Panther defense sit to watch film during Friday night’s contest. After a Gilley fumble, the defense had to step up to end the Tigers’ third quarter surge.
Aelise Gagliano
Members of the Panther defense sit to watch film during Friday night’s contest. After a Gilley fumble, the defense had to step up to end the Tigers’ third quarter surge.

The Tigers opened the third quarter with possession and a 21-point deficit. However, the duo of Dabner and Easterwood was enough to carry the Tigers to the end zone. Fayette County rumbled 67 yards down the field on 13 plays, and Easterwood hit sophomore wide receiver Jordan Turner on a 12-yard touchdown pass.

The Panthers took over with 6:09 left in the third quarter, and the offense started to stall, as DeLuca missed a deep pass on the first play of the drive, and they were stopped on the next two plays in which they tried to go to their run game. The possession ended in a three-and-out, and the ball went back to Fayette County.

“In the third quarter, Fayette [County] kind of [stepped up], and we didn’t,” Phillips said. “But when it came down to [the end], [we] rose to the occasion.”

The Tigers looked as if they were gaining momentum, but on their next drive, they turned the ball over on the first play of the possession. Easterwood lost the ball on a scramble and the Panthers regained possession. On the following play, Gilley sprinted past the Tiger defense for a 20-yard touchdown.

With 4:10 left in the third quarter, the Panthers were up 28-7. However, the Tigers would respond with a one play drive of their own as Dabney broke off a 64-yard score on the first play of the next Tiger possession, and the Panther lead was cut to 28-14.

“When you play a fast athlete, like [Dabney], it’s hard for us,” Phillips said. “It’s hard for us to tackle in space.”

Once again, the Panthers drive only lasted one play. This time, however, it was because Gilley lost the ball on a rush, and the Tigers recovered the fumble. Now the Tigers were only 36 yards from scoring again. They gained those yards over the span of the next seven plays, and the drive was ended on a 1-yard touchdown run from Easterwood. The Tigers had new life as they were now only down by seven, 28-21.

With possession to open the fourth quarter, the Panthers opened needed to respond to prevent a Tiger comeback. Over the course of four minutes, the Panthers marched 61 yards down the field in eight plays. Gilley slipped away from the Fayette County defense on his way to a 27-yard scoring run.

The touchdown closed out the game for the Panthers, as the Tigers only managed a turnover on downs when they got the ball back. Starr’s Mill chewed the fourth quarter out and held onto a 35-21 victory.

“They played hard from the start,” Phillips said. “I’m proud of the way they played in the fourth quarter.”

For the first time in six years, the Panthers will play a post-season game in Panther Stadium. Veterans High School will come to Fayetteville for a contest against the Panthers. The Warhawks earned the No. 4 seed in region 1-AAAAA, finishing 2-2 in their region and 5-5 overall. Veterans looks to prove they are better than their record, while the Panthers and their loaded running back unit look to win a playoff game at home for the first time in six years. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on Nov 11.

GHSA State Playoffs rules dictate that all fans, except infants in arms, must purchase a ticket. Ticket prices for the first round of State Playoffs are $8.  Fans can avoid the line at the gate by purchasing tickets online: https://gofan.co/app/events/1985. Discounted student tickets will also be available Thursday and Friday during all three lunch periods for $6.