Starr’s Mill opens playoffs with 38-17 win

Junior+Nick+Brown+jogs+back+to+the+sideline+after+a+play+against+Veterans.+With+the+Panthers+38-17+victory%2C+they+advance+to+the+second+round+to+host+the+9-2+Kell+Longhorns.
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Starr’s Mill opens playoffs with 38-17 win

Junior Nick Brown jogs back to the sideline after a play against Veterans. With the Panthers 38-17 victory, they advance to the second round to host the 9-2 Kell Longhorns.

Junior Nick Brown jogs back to the sideline after a play against Veterans. With the Panthers 38-17 victory, they advance to the second round to host the 9-2 Kell Longhorns.

Kristen Sherman

Junior Nick Brown jogs back to the sideline after a play against Veterans. With the Panthers 38-17 victory, they advance to the second round to host the 9-2 Kell Longhorns.

Kristen Sherman

Kristen Sherman

Junior Nick Brown jogs back to the sideline after a play against Veterans. With the Panthers 38-17 victory, they advance to the second round to host the 9-2 Kell Longhorns.

Rilee Stapleton, Staff Writer

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Playoff football returned to Panther Stadium for the first time since 2010, and the Panthers made sure they didn’t disappoint. What started as a back and forth game, ended with a surge from the Panthers in the fourth quarter to seal their 38-17 victory over the Veterans Warhawks.

“[The atmosphere] is definitely more exciting [in the playoffs],” junior quarterback Joey DeLuca said. “It’s just a lot of fun to play at home.”

Junior Cole Gilley led the charge with 163 yards and four touchdowns on 16 touches. DeLuca ran 12 times for 63 yards and scored once himself. The Panthers ran for 330 yards while holding Veterans to 179 on the ground.

Members of the Panther defense look toward the sideline to listen for the next playcall. The defense forced two interceptions and recovered two fumbles on special teams to help the Panthers move into the second round of the AAAAA GHSA State Playoffs.

Kristen Sherman
Members of the Panther defense look toward the sideline to listen for the next playcall. The defense forced two interceptions and recovered two fumbles on special teams to help the Panthers move into the second round of the AAAAA GHSA State Playoffs.

In 13 carries, Warhawk senior running back Amarrian Brown contributed one touchdown and 124 of his team’s 179 total rushing yards. Junior quarterback Leyton Pinckney completed 6 of 20 passes for 103 yards, but he was picked off twice.

“This was the best defense we’ve played all year,” junior linebacker Ryan Cockes said. “It was huge having the two picks.”

The Panthers have recently done well whenever they start with possession, but that was different against Veterans as they opened the game with a three-and-out. The Warhawks would be the team to start quick as Brown broke off an 81-yard touchdown run on Veterans’ second play of their drive.

The Panthers were down already 7-0 with 8:53 left in the first quarter. However, on the fourth play of the drive Gilley exploded for a 61 yard touchdown. The score was evened at 7-7 with 7:11 left in the first quarter.

“We finally played a pretty solid game [on defense],” head coach Chad Phillips said. “With the exception of that first long run, we had some things that didn’t go right during that play.”

The Panther defense used the next Warhawk possession to prove themselves as they forced a punt after seven plays, and put the Panther offense back on the field. However, the offense was held to another three-and-out.

On the punt, the return man for Veterans made a late decision to catch the punt, and Panther sophomore defensive back Carson Walter timed his hit perfectly to force a fumble deep in Warhawk territory. Two plays after the Panthers recovered the fumble, DeLuca ran for an 8-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 14-7 lead with 1:26 left in the first quarter.

“We did what we needed to on offense,” Phillips said. “We went down and the kids answered the call.”

Brown blocks a Warhawk defender during a run in Friday’s game. All of the running backs worked together to gain 330 yards on the ground against Veterans.

Kristen Sherman
Brown blocks a Warhawk defender during a run in Friday’s game. All of the running backs worked together to gain 330 yards on the ground against Veterans.

The Warhawks’ next drive bled into the second quarter, as their offense worked to go 80 yards in nine plays. With nine minutes left in the second, Warhawk senior Kaiman Smith bolted to the end zone on a 10-yard touchdown run that would tie the game at 14.

The Panthers responded with a 7-play drive that included a 40-yard rush from freshman running back Khalen Sims. However, on the 51-yard drive, the Panthers were unable to score another touchdown, but sophomore kicker Michael Lantz knocked a 30-yard field goal right through the uprights to put Starr’s Mill up 17-14.

Both teams took turns punting, but the Panthers had the last possession before halftime. On the last play before halftime, Gilley found a hole in the defense and seemed as if he could score, but he was brought down at the Warhawks 17-yard line and the 39-yard run ended the first half.

“We told him before they play that we won’t have enough time to run another play,” Phillips said. “He got close, and we took momentum into [halftime].”

The Warhawks received the kickoff to start the third quarter, but on the second play back from halftime, Pinckney was picked off by Cockes. Cockes returned the ball to the Veterans 2-yard line. One play later Gilley punched the ball in the end zone to put the Panthers up 24-14.

The Panther defense stepped up again and forced a quick three-and-out to stop Veterans from cutting into the Panthers’ 10-point lead. The Starr’s Mill offense, however, marched 33 yards in eight plays, but ultimately turned the ball over on downs.

“[We] had two big turnovers on special teams,” Phillips said. “We stress the importance of [special teams] to our kids because they’re game changers.”

We just have to keep grinding at practice, just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

— junior running back Cole Gilley

With 5:25 left in the third, the Warhawks desperately needed to cut into their deficit. They did so with a 10-play, 58-yard drive, but they could only manage a field goal that made it a one-score game with the score at 24-17.

After their score, the Warhawks forced a punt and seemed to be gaining momentum. However, another muffed punt gave the Panthers the ball well within scoring range. Starting on Veterans’ 8-yard line, the Panther offense only took three plays to increase their lead. Gilley scored once more to put Starr’s Mill up 31-17.

“We practiced [special teams] in practice all week,” DeLuca said. “The plays came this game and we got them when we needed them.”

With 9:30 left in the game, the Warhawks had one more shot at a comeback. Unfortunately for the visiting team, any comeback hopes were destroyed when the Panther defense forced a Warhawk punt in just six plays.

The Panthers put the game away with a 10-play, 43-yard drive in which Gilley scored on a 17-yard run that iced the game at 38-17. It was Gilley’s 24th score on the year, tying the school record set just a year ago. He also sits 143 yards away from the single-season rushing record also set by then sophomore running back Rico Frye last season.  

“We have to go week by week,” Gilley said. “We just have to keep grinding at practice, just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

The Panthers victory kept them alive in the state playoffs, while improving their overall record to 7-4. For Veterans, their season came to an end as they finished with a 5-6 record. Next up for Starr’s Mill is Kell, who knocked off Southwest DeKalb 31-22 in their first round contest. The Longhorns boast a 9-2 record and look to steal a win in Panther Stadium while the Panthers look to continue their 4-game win streak and advance in the playoffs. The game is set to kickoff at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 18.