by Rob Grubbs
Since their inaugural season in 1998, Starr’s Mill football and success have been synonymous. The Panthers boast 12 trips to the state playoffs, five region championships, four trips beyond the second round, and two players in the NFL. So when they have opportunity to do something they have not accomplished, it’s big news. Such was the case Friday when they had the chance to repeat as region champions for the first time. After withstanding some big plays early, the Panthers dominated the Fayette County Tigers in a 44-13 victory that paved the way for their sixth region championship.
Since the Griffin Bears had already won on Thursday, the Panthers needed a win over Fayette County and a Whitewater win over McIntosh to add back to back regions to their resume. The Tigers were also in the thick of the playoff picture. A win guaranteed them a return to the playoffs after a one year hiatus.
Coach Mike Davis had his team ready. His defense forced a Panther punt and got the ball on their own 29 for their first possession. It only took one play for the Tigers to show they meant business as quarterback JeKobe Coleman found star running back Cory Andrews over the middle for a 71-yard quick strike touchdown for a 6-0 lead.
After absorbing the initial blow, the Panther offense settled in. Their precision running plays continued to move the chains, including a 4th and 1 conversion when Cole Gilley plunged ahead for three to continue the drive. Quarterback Joey DeLuca scored on a 1-yard keeper to give the lead right back to the Panthers at 7-6.
The Tigers answered immediately. Their second possession was kept alive when the Panthers committed a running into the kicker penalty. Coleman and Andrews hooked up once again with a pass over the middle, this time for 50 yards deep into Panther territory. Andrews finished the drive on a 4th and goal for his second touchdown of the game for the 13-7 lead early in the second quarter, the last time the Tigers would score for the night.
Down by a score, the Panther offense took control. They scored on their next four possessions to take a 31-13 commanding halftime lead. To further complicate matters, the Tigers lost Coleman and called on backup Shane Leinberger to finish the game. Deluca was painting a masterpiece from the QB position for Starr’s Mill, constantly making the right reads, and the Panthers were getting big chunks of yardage on the ground. Mitch Prowant sped past the Tiger defense for a 55-yard touchdown, and Khalen Sims added a 12-yard scoring run.
With the game in hand and the Tiger offense down their leader, the second half allowed the Panthers to tune up for their first round playoff matchup. Sophomore Hunter Lawson got some valuable experience under center for the Panthers as they continued to ground and pound. Prowant and Gilley added third quarter touchdowns as the Panthers finished with 390 total rushing yards. Four Panthers had 70 yards are more with Prowant the leader with 115 yards on just 5 carries.
“We have a well-documented legacy here at Starr’s Mill, but this group has talked since last spring about raising the bar higher,” said coach Chad Phillips. “They have done that with the back to back region championships and being only the second group to go to the state playoffs four years in a row in school history, and they aren’t done yet.”
The slow start has been an issue the Panthers look to rectify.
“It seemed like all season our defense did not start playing until the other team got a big play, and tonight was no different,” he said. “After those two quick scores, it’s like they say – Ok, we need to buckle down here.”
The Panthers responded to their only defeat five weeks ago, a one-point loss to Griffin, by averaging 40 points a game over their last four games to take control of the region.
“We slowly got healthy,” said Phillips. “Each week we got a little better. Tonight we were only down one starter.”
For Fayette County, Coleman completed 6 of 10 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. He kept the Tigers in the game with his accuracy until his exit before halftime. He has two more years to continue and grow as the Fayette County quarterback. Two of his favorite targets, Reggie Booker and Jordan Turner, also return next season.
The region championship means that Starr’s Mill will host round one against the Dutchtown Bulldogs from Region 4-AAAAA. The Panthers were about to get back to work to get ready for that matchup, but for a moment, Panther Nation celebrated their latest accomplishment after the game under the scoreboard that proclaimed the new honor. The bar has been raised once again through focus and hard work. They will need all of that to continue their season deep into the playoffs.