Starr’s Mill celebrates during their pivotal victory over Northgate to earn a shot at the state playoffs. The Panthers play at Dutchtown this week in a winner-take-all game. (Photo by Adam Hagy)

Starr’s Mill coach Chad Phillips noticed a different energy in his players on Friday as they went out and took down Northgate, 24-14, on a cold and windy night.

It’s been a four year playoff drought for the Panthers, and Phillips said he could tell his players were excited for the opportunity to snap it. The win qualified them for the region playoffs, and next week’s matchup with Dutchtown will decide whether they’re in or out for state. But first, they had to beat Northgate, who beat them 17-14 the year before.

“This was a quality opponent here. We’ve obviously got to work on some things. There were some execution flaws up front. We made a couple bad decisions with the ball throwing it. Defensively, we’ve missed way too many tackles,” Phillips said of lessons learned from the game.

On the positive side, the Panthers got big plays in every phase of the game to tilt what was a mostly even game in their favor.

Northgate actually outgained the Panthers overall, especially in the running game where they had 222 yards on 42 carries compared to Starr’s MIll’s 104 on 32 carries. It was the Panthers, though, that were able to make plays in the air and pull out a key defensive score.

Dion Munerlyn got the Panthers rolling early on. Set up with good field position by a Satchel Goodrich return, Munerlyn took a pass from Stone Kasten 40 yards to the house to put Starr’s Mill up 7-0.

Starr’s Mill would force a punt on the next possession, which ended up being a very good punt pinning them down to the nine-yard line.

The team peeled off a quick drive powered by a big 46-yard pass from Kasten to Terence Harper. They capped it off on a 10-yard score by Rico Frye, who finished with 121 yards on 25 carries to go with the score.

After one quarter, Starr’s Mill appeared to be dominating, but Northgate would claw its way back into the game. The teams exchanged stalled drives until late in the second, when Northgate busted a big run down to the Panther 10-yard line and promptly punched it in.

Terence Harper gouged the Northgate defense for a 46-yard reception, and later forced a key fumble to ice the victory. (Photo by Gary Peurifoy)

Starr’s Mill carried a 14-7 lead into the half.

On their opening drive of the second half, Starr’s Mill again threatened to score. Rico Frye even found himself in the endzone on a 55-yard run, but the play was reversed for a block in the back penalty.

Frye promptly broke out for another big gain, putting the Panthers in scoring territory, but a big sack would force them into a field goal try, which Brandon Oot nailed to make it 17-7.

Northgate responded with a good drive of their own, again punching it into the end zone to make it 17-14.

With 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Starr’s Mill was preparing to punt it away to Northgate and seeing their playoff chances teeter in the balance. Northgate had seized some of the momentum at that point.

The Vikings started rolling, starting from their own 11 thanks to a great punt by Mitch Pattison. Northgate converted multiple third downs on the drive as they worked down across midfield into Panther territory.

Big Terence Harper then decided to put an end to Northgate’s drive, swooping in for a sack and a forced fumble. Ryan Roper snatched up the ball and ran it back 56-yards for the touchdown, putting the Panthers up 24-14 and all but slamming the door shut on a Northgate comeback.

“We played as physical as we have all year and played like a hungry football team,” Coach Phillips said. “Our underclassmen rallied around our senior class. All week we challenged them to help this class prolong the season and put the program back on the playoff map.”

And the Panthers are back on the map, but there’s work left to do. They’ve qualified for the region playoffs but in order to get in they have to win a “loser goes home” matchup on Dutchtown’s home field this Friday. The Panthers have already beaten Dutchtown once this year. One more win and they’re back where they want to be.