by Rob Grubbs
Even before the season began, the Starr’s Mill Panthers knew they had a lot of growing up to do to compete for their third consecutive region championship. After an early season non-region losing streak left them at 1-3, there were concerns the rebuild may be too big to continue their region dominance, but after getting back-to-back convincing wins, it was time to play their cross-county region rivals, the Whitewater Wildcats (0-7) for a chance to take the outright lead in Region 3-AAAAA. The Wildcats season started with much promise, but injuries and bad-breaks left them uncharacteristically low in the standings. Playing at Whitewater, where some strange things have happened between the two schools in the past, the Panthers (4-3, 3-0) took control early for a convincing 49-14 win behind a record-breaking night by junior Kalen Sims.
The Panthers’ first offensive drive of the game presented two distinctive themes for the evening. The first was the improvement in the offensive line. It was the first thing Panther head coach Chad Phillips mentioned in his post-game assessment.
“This was the first game that we had two consecutive starting fives on the offensive line this whole season,” he said. “The same five that started tonight also started against Griffin. They just keeping improving.”
It showed once again the depth the Panthers have in their backfield. On the 11-play, 86-yard possession, four different players carried the ball as Sims, Ardit Hoti, Hunter Lawson, and Ben Bodne got going early. The Panthers got on the board first with a 12-yard scamper from Bodne to go up 7-0.
The next Panther drive was much less complex, just one play, a 60-yard sprint to the end zone by Sims and they were up 14-0.
While there is a lot of offensive backfield depth, Sims is special and fun to watch. He finished the game with 279 yards on 20 carries and 3 touchdowns. The 279 total set a new Starr’s Mill single game rushing record, eclipsing the previous mark set by Cole Gilley last season.
Whitewater had their best offensive drive of the evening, pushing deep into Panther territory, but were stopped on a 4th and 1 to start the second quarter. The turnover on downs gave possession back to the Panthers.
With momentum swinging toward Wildcats, they forced a punt after a fumbled exchange and then drove the length of the field to cut the lead in half on a touchdown provided by a 42-yard run from Elijah Roland.
The Wildcats played the game without their starting quarterback and Fayette Super-12-member Maddox Mueller, but got a solid performance from back-up Austen Millians, who had a key third down completion to Hunter Williams to keep the initial scoring drive alive.
The momentum change was short lived as the Panthers scored two touchdowns in less than 20 seconds right before the half. One touchdown came from Sims to complete an 80-yard drive and the other came from a Bodne interception. Instead of going into the half down seven, the Wildcats were now down 21 and the Panthers were to receive the second half kickoff.
The Panthers added two more touchdowns in the third, an 8-yard run from Karsen Kalen and another long 67-yard run from Sims to put the game away, with the Panthers scoring four touchdowns in just over six minutes.
Both teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter with the Wildcats scoring on a 22-yard pass from Millians to Jackson Van Meter, and the Panthers scoring via a 4-yard quarterback keeper from Hunter Lawson.
In the end it was a dominant performance by Starr’s Mill in a stadium where they had only won twice in the previous twelve seasons. The Panthers finished the game with 467 rushing yards and had over 31 minutes in time-of-possession compared to the Wildcats 17 minutes.
Philips acknowledged the pivotal work of his defense.
“We never gave Whitewater a big play, we had a great plan coming in and the boys executed,” he said. “It is something we can evaluate from the film and improve, just another positive step for our young team.”
Roland led the Wildcat offense with 131 yards rushing on 19 carries, while Millians completed 6 passes for 61 yards. In addition to Sims, the Panthers got 71 yards rushing from Hoti and 63 yards from Bodne.
This week, the Panthers look to stay unbeaten in region play when they host the McIntosh Chiefs in the Battle of the Bubble. The Wildcats take a week off before trying for their first 2018 win against the Riverdale Raiders on the road at Southern Crescent Stadium.