by Rob Grubbs
With an experienced team returning, the Starr’s Mill Panthers had two main concerns when going for their unprecedented fourth consecutive region championship. First was the improvements made by their region rivals Griffin and Riverdale, and the other was finding a way to replace an all-state kicker. Both were answered Saturday night as the Panthers beat the Riverdale Raiders 42-41 in overtime at Southern Crescent Stadium.
Last year’s kicker, Michael Lantz, now kicks on Saturdays for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. With replacement prospects looking slim, Panther head coach Chad Phillips got an assist from one of the Starr’s Mill soccer coaches, and Christian Castillo has picked right up were Lantz left off. With the game on the line, Castillo’s winning extra point split the uprights for the win and completed the Griffin/Riverdale sweep to gave the Panthers control of the region. After overcoming an early season loss to Jonesboro, the Panthers can clinch their fourth consecutive region championship with a win over Fayette County this Friday night.
The Panthers took the opening kickoff and used the bruising style of Ben Bodne on the inside and the speed and cutback ability of Kalen Sims to score the opening touchdown, which Sims punched in from nine yards out. The Raiders used their offensive weapons to score just as easily and tie the game up.
When both the Panthers and the Raiders scored on their next possession, it become clear it was a game that would be decided by who had the ball last. Cole Bishop scored the second Panther touchdown of the night on a 16-yard pass from Hunter Lawson where he out jumped the cornerback for the ball.
Bodne and Lawson scored the next two touchdowns for the Panthers on the ground, while Tremain Moore and Phalon Daniels scored for the Raiders.
With the game knotted at 28-28, the Panthers made their first mistake on an interception deep in their own territory, which the Raiders immediately converted into a touchdown and their first lead of the evening. The Panthers calmly put together a 13-play, 63-yard drive that culminated with Sims’s second touchdown of the game to tie things back up at 35-all.
The Panthers seemed ready to take command after they recovered an onside kick, but the Raider defense got a stop. The pressure was now on the Panther defense to answer. With the game on the line, they played their best, forcing a three and out. On the final possession of regulation, the Raiders were denied a touchdown on a bone-jarring tackle by Bishop on Raider quarter Avuan Rucker. The impact seemed to shake up Rucker momentarily which affected him as the holder on a last play field goal for the win, which was missed.
With new life, the Panthers went into overtime on defense first and gave up a touchdown run by Fredrick Collins, but the extra point was missed, which left the door open. The Panthers scored four plays later on Sims’s third touchdown of the night, and Castillo sealed the game with his extra point.
“We have been practicing overtime situations for eight weeks and during our open date last week, we had two live periods against each other that focused on overtime,” Phillips said of his team’s preparation. “I knew if we could get there, we would be more than ready for the situation.”
That attention to detail is the difference between a region champion and a runner-up.
For the game, Sims had 155 yards rushing, Bodne had 100 yards, and Karsen Kalen added 31 yards.
If they beat Fayette County at home on Friday, the Panthers will host Harris County in the first round of the state playoffs.