As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Starr’s Mill head coach Chad Phillips gathered his team and celebrated. He beamed with a wide smile and hugged anyone near him. Phillips watched his players get serenaded by the school’s fight song and it hit him that the Panthers had just won the Region 3-AAAAA crown again.
“There is just a culture that kids expect to win and half the battle is getting them to believe they can win,” Phillips said. “I am just real excited for the boys.”
Starr’s Mill defeated Riverdale 45-22 to ensure their third consecutive region crown and their seventh title in school history. The Panthers improved to 6-3 on the season and undefeated in region play. Riverdale fell to 7-2 with the loss.
The Panthers got major production from their trio of junior running backs. Kalen Sims led the charge with 18 carries, 144 yards and 3 touchdowns. Ardit Hoti added 126 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Ben Bodne added a red zone score.
The trio scored on six of nine drives and gave Riverdale fits all night. As a team, Starr’s Mill had 385 yards and 21 first downs. Riverdale took some shots early, but penalties and turnovers cost the Raiders.
T.J. Moore had 154 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the Panthers kept star running back Phalon Daniels in check. After scoring four times against Whitewater, Daniels mustered 54 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown.
“It felt great and we needed this game to secure the region and get the three peat,” Sims said. “We succeeded as all the hard work we put in paid off.”
The work began early in the offseason. The players participated in four practices a week and trained hard in January and February. However, the true testament of the team was magnified five weeks ago after the Panthers started 1-3 to begin the season.
It was a moment that forced Starr’s Mill to re-evaluate their situation. Losing three straight to Northgate, Chapel Hill and Sandy Creek wasn’t ideal. Phillips spent many nights figuring out how to turn it around.
Following a team meeting, players noticed a changed mentality. Phillips wanted his young team to be more aggressive and score early. According to junior quarterback Hunter Lawson, the message was to simply to continue to fight.
“We just had to keep battling as the season was never over,” Lawson said. “We had to keep fighting.”
Starr’s Mill quickly developed a swagger on the field. Their new mindset paid dividends as they rolled past Jonesboro and Griffin. The two-game stretch proved to be the turning point of the season. They outscoring both teams 76-12 and rattled off five straight wins. In each win, the Panthers won by 15 or more points.
“After the Jonesboro win, the kids realized that we aren’t as bad as we have played,” Philips said. “Going down and winning at Griffin confirmed that we can play.”
Several players kicked their games into high gear. Sims posted a career day with 279 yards against Whitewater. Lawson orchestrated clutch drives and senior Sean King came up big on both sides of the ball. Against Riverdale, King had 2 interceptions to ice the game.
“They have really learned to love each other and run the offense,” Phillips said. “Ardit Hoti didn’t play well in the beginning of the season, but he has come on strong. Ben Bodne is just a competitor and Kalen Sims has been solid. Hunter Lawson makes the whole thing go.”
The offensive line and defensive lines also stood tall. They opened running lanes and quelled opposing teams. As a result, Starr’s Mill averaged 36 points per game and held opponents to an average of 25 points.
“Our offensive line and defensive line is really winning the games for us right now,” Lawson said. “I think they stepped up majorly.”
The win against Riverdale sealed the comeback journey. With the No. 1 seed, the Panthers will host a playoff game. They will face the four seed in Class AAAAA Region 2. Next week, the Panthers face Fayette County to close out the regular season.
Phillips plans on getting guys rest during practice, but still plans on playing his regular starters. He wants to keep them fresh for state.
Sims knows the team will be ready. He said the team is well coached and primed to be strong in the playoffs.
“Don’t doubt us as we are capable of anything,” Sims said. “They underestimate us as we aren’t the biggest team. But, we have heart and we are going out there and fight.”