by Rob Grubbs
As the competition gets stronger in the state playoffs, it’s good when a team can put in a wrinkle or two that will catch the opposition off guard. The Starr’s Mill Panthers played the Kell Longhorns Friday night in the second round and pulled out all the punches in a 45-28 victory. The win sets up a rematch from the 2017 playoffs against the Dutchtown Bulldogs.
The Longhorns (9-3) came into the game with only two losses, both to top teams in Class 5-AAAAA in the Rome Wolves and the Carrollton Trojans.
Both teams seemed to size each other up on their early possessions, but Starr’s Mill put together a perfect Panther drive, which started on their own 44 yard line. After a 12-yard pass from Hunter Lawson to Ben Bodne, the Panthers called on their running back trio of Kalen Sims, Karsen Kalen, and Bodne to finish off the drive. Bodne scored from the 8-yard line on the first play of the second quarter and the Panthers were up 7-0.
Kell showed how explosive they could be on their next drive. They scored on a 42-yard touchdown pass from Corbin Lafrance to Jamal Hill, and the game was tied at 7-7. They seemed take the Panthers early momentum and forced and punt on Starr’s Mill’s next possession, but a mishap by the Longhorns special teams on a Gavin Necessary punt gave the Panthers the ball on the Kell two-yard line, and Lawson scored a play later to retake the lead.
After the Panther defense forced a three-and-out, they got the ball back with two minutes until the half. A block in the back penalty put the Panthers in a deep hole ,and Kell, seeing an opportunity for one more possession, called a timeout. It was a dramatic change to the game.
Facing a 2nd and 19, Lawson called his own number and streaked down the Starr’s Mill sideline for an 83-yard touchdown run and a 21-7 lead.
The play stunned Kell as they turned the ball over in the waning seconds which allowed the Panthers to put a field goal on the board to end the half with a 24-7 lead.
Kell was too good to stay down long. They scored on both of their possessions of the the third quarter, including a 92-yard touchdown catch by Hill to pull within three at 24-21.
When they got the ball with 11 minutes remaining in the game, it was going to take a big play from someone on the Panther defense. Instead, they got two from Jack Barczak. With the ball on the Panther 43, Barczak got to Lafrance for an eight-yard sack which also caused the Longhorns to call a timeout. On the next play, Barczak got to him again, this time a two-yard loss to force a Kell punt.
“Jack has battled through some adversity and has learned some great lessons about fighting through things, because sooner or later your moment will come,” said Starr’s Mill coach Chad Phillips. “Tonight, he came through and made plays.”
With only 5:45 remaining, the Panthers pulled a play from the first half playbook, and Lawson delivered again, this time an 84-yard keeper for a touchdown and a 31-21 lead. The Panther defense held on downs and Bodne scored his second touchdown of the game to give Starr’s Mill a 17-point lead, but with Kell’s explosive offense, no lead was safe.
The Longhorns scored a quick touchdown and still had a pulse, but the Panthers recovered the onside kick to seal the game. There was one surprise necessary to end the night. On fourth down, the Panthers were forced to punt with a few seconds remaining, but punter Gavin Necessary executed a perfect fake and found Cole Bishop wide open for a 52-yard touchdown pass for the final margin of 45-28.
“We practice that play every week, so he was ready for that moment,” said Phillips.
The game was a complete effort for the Panthers.
“I thought we played very well on defense. We stopped their running game and forced them to throw,” said Phillips. “With their two early mistakes, they had to score on every possession to get back in it, and we made the stops when we had too.”
Lawson’s numbers jump off the stat sheet. He finished with 200 yards rushing on 11 carries with 3 touchdowns, and he also had 97 yards passing. Almost equally impressive was his ability to direct the offense with no turnovers.
“Hunter made great reads on the option, his sped is tremendous and he wants the ball,” said Phillips. “He was a gladiator.”
The victory earned the Panthers their third consecutive 2019 home playoff game with Dutchtown (11-1) the looming opponent. Their only loss was against Jones County, who is also still alive in the playoffs. It might take a few more wrinkles from Coach Phillips playbook to get his boys into the semifinals.