by Rob Grubbs

The Starr’s Mill Panthers continued their pursuit of a fourth consecutive region championship on Friday night with a non-region contest against the Chapel Hill Panthers. In a game where both teams seemed to switch offensive identities, Starr’s Mill trailed by seven late and appeared to get the break they needed on a Chapel Hill turnover, but an official’s whistle turned the fumble to an incomplete pass and head coach Chad Phillips’s team suffered their first loss of the year, 28-21.

Chapel Hill posed challenges for Phillips’s precision run offense. Their defensive line was stout, and they were stacking the box, which forced some adjustments to Starr’s Mill’s game plan. After falling behind early, the Panthers roared back with a 79-yard touchdown pass from Hunter Lawson to sophomore Malachi Townsend. They took the lead a few minutes later on another Lawson touchdown pass, this one for 32 yards out to Gavin Necessary to take a 14-7 lead into halftime.

Nate Kearns and Jonathan Higle battle for a deep pass. Higle notched two interceptions on the night. (Photos by Michael Clifton /

With Starr’s Mill now in an Air-Raid type offense, Chapel Hill went to their running game to start the second half. They tied the game up on a 66-yard drive, all on the ground. 

Starr’s Mill made their most crucial mistake of the night on the ensuing kickoff. An angled kick forced a muff, and Chapel Hill recovered it to put their offense right back on the field. They only needed five running plays to find the end zone this time, and they had a 21-14 lead. There were only five minutes left in the third quarter, and Starr’s Mill had not run an offensive play yet in the second half.

After an exchange of possessions, Chapel Hill was poised to put the game away at the end of the third quarter, but a Jonathon Higle pick six for Starr’s Mill tied the game back up and restored energy to the homecoming crowd.

Gavin Necessary gets behind the defense on a 32-yard touchdown. 

Chapel Hill finally broke through for the go-ahead touchdown, and  after a turnover by Starr’s Mill on the next play, it would take an opportunistic defense to give Starr’s Mill one last chance. With the clock running down, Chapel Hill executed a power read play and the ball appeared to be fumbled and recovered by Starr’s Mill. In the confusion of the moment however, a whistle was blown by the line judge and what appeared to be Starr’s Mill’s break simply became an incomplete pass. Chapel Hill was able to run out the clock from there for the 28-21 final margin. 

“We had a chance. We challenged them at halftime and came out and the worse possible thing that could happen, happened,” said Phillips. “Just too many mistakes tonight. Chapel Hill is a very physical team.  We played hard and we had a chance at the end.”

Chapel Hills Head Coach Justin DeShon, who is married to a Starr’s Mill graduate, knows what this win means for them.  

“Starr’s Mill is so well coached, getting a win here is a huge deal for our program,” said DeShon. 

Higle was the standout for Starr’s Mill from his defensive back position. He had two interceptions and a touchdown. Lawson ended the night with 148 yards passing and 2 touchdowns. It was just difficult for Starr’s Mill to get any consistency in the second half, as they only ran 16 offensive plays compared to 33 by Chapel Hill. 

The road does not get any easier. Next up is county rival Sandy Creek at their place, the last tune-up for Starr’s Mill before they embark on the region schedule. 

Jackson Baxley bottles up a Chapel Hill ballcarrier.