by Rob Grubbs
Starr’s Mill has talked all season about raising the bar for their program. On Friday night, the Bainbridge Bearcats represented the latest test as they took the long drive north to Panther Stadium. The Panthers lost in the second round last season and a win would put them into the third round for the first time since the 2010 season. The Bearcats (8-3) were led by senior running back and Florida commit Dameon Pierce and a strong, athletic defense. The question was could the Panthers’ precision offense hold serve against Pierce and outscore them. The answer was a resounding yes. Their defense scored two touchdowns, and Starr’s Mill moves on with an impressive 49-28, bar-raising win.
The first drive of a game often offers a glimpse into how things will play out and this night provided a classic example. The Bearcats took the opening kickoff and the Panthers got their first on-the-job training against Pierce. He got 36 yards in his first four carries as they quickly moved downfield, but the defense steadied itself, Coltin Houser had a tackle for loss that set up a 4th and 11 from the Panther 24. Ryan Cockes read the pass in the flat and made an excellent break on the ball, swatting it away at the last second to force the turnover on downs. It was the start of an amazing night for Cockes who had missed a significant part of the season with an injury.
The Panthers scored on their first drive. Seeing the Bearcats had everyone on the box to stop the run, quarterback Joey DeLuca made them bite with a playaction fake and hit Brandon Rew over the top for 41 yards. Nick Brown capped it off with a 2-yard touchdown plunge.
Bainbridge came right back on a Pierce 26-yard scoring run. He was as big, strong, and physical as advertised.
The first two minutes of the second quarter defined the game. Mitch Prowant’s 10-yard touchdown run capped a nine-play drive that regained the lead for the Panthers. Pierce fumbled the ball away to Carson Walter, which set up another Brown TD run, and Cockes stepped in front of a Bearcat pass and returned it for a 30-yard touchdown. The game went from tied to Starr’s Mill up 28-7 in just over a minute.
A team of Bainbridge’s pedigree and playoff experience does not lay down at the first sign of adversity, and they scratched back on two huge touchdown passes, a 75-yard screen pass from Mark Loeffler to Pierce and a 44-yard pass that Aaron Spivie just got his fingertips on across the middle. Momentum had changed, and it was Starr’s Mill turn to take it back, which they did with an 11-play drive all on the ground. After a Cole Gilley score, the Panthers took a 35-21 lead to the half.
The Panthers received the second half kick and scored again on a Prowant 1-yard run. The inevitability of the outcome was starting to set in for the Bearcats. A key play on the drive was a 3rd and 14 play where DeLuca found Khalen Sims streaking open out of the backfield for a 57-yard pass. The Panther running backs were open all night on their routes, a by-product of Bainbridge selling out to slow down the ground game.
When Cockes intercepted his second pass of the game and returned it for another touchdown, the Panthers were up 49-21 at the end of the third quarter. His two interceptions were almost identical, same spot, same coverage, and same result.
“I have made some interceptions in my career, but I have never taken one for a touchdown, it was incredible,” said Cockes. “The second was a pass to their good guy (Pierce), and I read it and jumped the route and hoped I could outrun him to the end zone.”
Of the big 4th down play in the first quarter, Cockes said, “I saw the play develop and at the last moment I was just able to tip it away.”
The fourth quarter saw Panther coach Chad Phillips get his younger players some playoff experience and the end of the high school career for Pierce, who score his third touchdown of the game on a 48-yard run. Pierce finished with 194 yards on 22 carries and one reception for 75 yards.
“He was fun to watch, especially as long as we had a lead,” Phillips said of Pierce. “I was really surprised that we held them to 28 points, they are a really good. I felt like our offense would be able to score, I just hoped we would slow them down.”
Sean King added another interception for a defense that forced four Bearcat turnovers and converted three into touchdowns.
While the running backs get most of the attention on offense and Cockes had a stellar defensive performance, it is easy to overlook the leadership and experience of DeLuca in his third year as the starting quarterback. He understands Coach Phillip’s offense completely, makes quick reads and rarely makes a mistake. He completed three passes for 116 yards and controlled the game from start to finish. Nick Brown had 89 yards rushing, and Mitch Prowant added 64. Both backs scored 2 touchdowns apiece. Cole Gilley added 46 yards and a score.
Next up for the Panthers will be the top-ranked and defending state champion Rome Wolves (12-0), who may have one of the best high school defenses in the nation. Because of a universal coin flip made by the GHSA to determine home field advantage, Starr’s Mill will get to play their fourth consecutive home game. It is going to take a complete team effort in all phases of the game to advance, but that is the opportunity the Panthers have earned as they continue to raise the bar.
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