Starr’s Mill’s memorable season ended on Friday night. The Panthers were on the wrong side of history as the New Hampstead Phoenix marched to a 21-10 victory en route to their first-ever state playoff win.
The Phoenix (5-5) put up 254 total yards and propelled into the second round of the playoffs. Senior quarterback Deyandre Ruffin led the way by completing 9 of 21 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. He also gained 81 yards on the ground. The Phoenix travel to face Stockbridge next week.
“This win is a big milestone for our program,” New Hampstead head coach Michael Moore said.“This is our fifth year with a team and our third year playing a region schedule. This means we are on our way to accomplishing our vision.”
New Hampstead traveled nearly four hours to face Starr’s Mill. The Phoenix brought a tenacious defense as they shut down The Panthers offensively. Starr’s Mill (7-4) gained 271 total yards after averaging 358.9 yards per game this season.
The Panthers couldn’t find a rhythm all night. After junior quarterback Hunter Lawson scored a 38-yard touchdown on their first drive, the Panthers struggled to move the ball. Penalties and turnovers killed possessions and forced them to punt.
The Phoenix capitalized early in the second quarter. With 11:46 remaining before halftime, they forced a fumbled handoff to Panthers’ junior back Kalen Sims. Defensive lineman Ryan Smith recovered the football and returned it for a 62-yard touchdown.
“Defense came up big in this game,” Moore said. “I was impressed at their poise and tenacity tonight. The fumble gave us the confidence we needed to play a complete game against a good team.”
The fumble return was the turning point. On the play, Sims injured his foot and left the game. Afterwards, he was diagnosed with a mid-foot sprain. Sims ends an impressive season with 1485 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.
“(Sims) battled some injuries this year and he got hurt pretty bad last week and didn’t practice all week,” Starr’s Mill head coach Chad Phillips said. “It is one of those unfortunate things… Kalen is our game-breaker and our explosive player. You take him out of our offense and it is different.”
As a result, the Phoenix built momentum. They started gashing the Panthers up the middle with running back Dontre Wallace. He rushed for 68 yards on 20 carries and scored a late 2-yard touchdown. Wallace’s production opened the passing attack for talented junior receivers Sam Brown and Justin McKithen.
The duo combined for 6 catches and 81 receiving yards. Brown hauled in a 15-yard touchdown just before halftime as the Phoenix took a 14-7 lead.
“We just missed tackles and it kind of looked like how we played against Chapel Hill and Sandy Creek,” Phillips said. “They had phenomenal athletes that got in space and it exposed us.”
In the second half, Starr’s Mill continued to spiral. Four out of their last five drives ended without points. Only a 25-yard field goal by Michael Lantz kept them in the game.
“We were doing anything we can to build some momentum and string some first downs together,” Phillips said.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers were down 14-10. With 2:52 remaining, they had one last shot at their own 20-yard line. Lawson took the snap and tried to hit Sean King on a corner route. Instead, the ball was undercut by New Hampstead’s Jurel Armstrong and returned to the 8-yard line.
Two plays later, Wallace scored to extend the lead to 21-10. The Phoenix recovered the ensuing kickoff and ran out the clock.
Lawson finished 4-for-12 with 152 total yards (77 rushing) and 1 touchdown. Junior Ben Bodne had 48 yards on 6 carries and senior receiver Sean King caught 2 passes for 64 yards.
The loss ended another successful season for the Panthers. They reached the state playoffs in five consecutive seasons and won the region for the third year in a row. A first-round home playoff loss stings, but Phillips knows his team will be back.
“We didn’t play to our level and our standards and it’s disappointing,” Phillips said. “You can’t take away the fact that we lost 17 starters last year. These kids came out and won every region game. They accomplished a lot.”
Next season, the Panthers return most of their starters. Sims and Lawson will be back for their senior seasons, along with a host of other players. Phillips will have to find another two-way athlete to replace King, a defender to replace Michael Burnett, and a kicker to replace Michael Lantz.
“They learned some valuable lessons that will stay with them forever,” Phillips said. “Through the game, they learned to deal with adversity and got a work ethic that was great. They learned a lot of things that they are going to be look back and apply to their life.”
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