By Dylan Hynson
The Starr’s Mill Panthers continue to defy the odds this season. They finished on top of Region 3-AAAAA and clinched a spot in the GHSA playoffs for the third straight season, a feat that seemed impossible after a rocky 1-3 start to their season. Now, they will host their first home playoff game in six years tonight.
“We established a goal in January to win the region,” Starr’s Mill head coach Chad Phillips said. “We put up signs, we had an old helmet the players signed as a contract and that was 11 months ago. We’ve put a lot of time and energy into this, and the coaches are very proud of them.”
Playing in a tough and talented region, the Panthers knew achieving one of those goals would be extremely tough, but key victories over Griffin and Riverdale propelled them to their first region title since 2010. Most of their success came from their three-headed monster in the backfield, juniors Cole Gilley, Nick Brown, and Mitch Prowant.
“Those three kids are something special,” Phillips said. “And credit our offensive line as well, they have really improved a great deal all season.”
With Gilley rushing for 1,381 yards and Brown gaining 874 yards on the year, teams will have a tough time trying to stop those three backs throughout the playoffs. If Brown can get another 124 yards, it will be the first time Starr’s Mill has ever had two running backs over 1,000 yards in the same season.
With all the rushing success from the Panthers, one cannot forget the play of the engineer behind the offensive success, junior quarterback Joey DeLuca.
“He’s been a great kid to work with,” Phillips said. “We don’t throw the ball that often, but when we need to, he’s got the arm to do it.”
DeLuca will be starting his third playoff game of his career, with a blowout win over Northside and a loss to eventual state champion Allatoona last season. According to Phillips, most of his players want to go deeper into the playoffs and put the tough loss from last year behind them.
As for this season, the Panthers suffered three losses to extremely competitive teams through the first four games of the season. They lost to Newnan in the opener, Northgate, a team they lost to last year, and Sandy Creek.
“From a scheduling stand point, we were behind the 8 ball,” Phillips said. “Three out of the four teams we played in the beginning of the season made the playoffs, and we were not very good on offense. The way we played against Sandy Creek gave our kids a lot of confidence, and we started rolling on offense after that game.”
The Panthers grew in confidence after the close loss to the three-time state championship program. They soundly defeated Morrow in their next contest before capturing an emotional road victory over the Griffin Bears, the preseason favorite to win the region. A 52-49 shootout win over the 4th ranked team in the state brought the Panthers to an all-time high and was one of the biggest wins in school history.
“There was a lot of excitement that night and a lot of energy,” Phillips said. “That’s probably a top 5 victory in the history of this school to go on the road and beat a highly-ranked football team.”
However, the Panthers couldn’t contain that momentum it had just gained, as they dropped a controversial game to the Whitewater Wildcats. Phillips recalled that his team wasn’t as focused that week in practice and it showed when his team committed two turnovers in the opening quarter against the Wildcats. Luckily they bounced back and made it a game in the end, but still lost after one of the weirdest endings to a high school football game the county may ever see.
“It was a perfect example of us not being ready for the moment,” Phillips said. ‘We did not prepare well enough during the week coming off that emotional game versus Griffin. It was hard to get that momentum back on our side.”
Phillips believes that while the Whitewater loss was tough at first, it helped his team realize that you can’t take your foot off the gas and they need to remain focused no matter what.
They never took their foot back off the gas as the Panthers pulled off three straight wins after the loss, beating rival McIntosh, Riverdale, and Fayette County. After Griffin defeated Riverdale last Friday night, the Panthers finally celebrated their first region championship since 2010.
“We listened to the Griffin game on the bus ride home, and parents were listening to it in their cars when we got back to the stadium,” Phillips said. “When Griffin got that last first down to seal the game, our players went crazy in the locker room. It was fun.”
Now that the long, twisty regular season is over, the Panthers look forward to the opportunity to play a playoff game at home. Tonight will be the first home playoff game at Panther Stadium since 2010, when Starr’s Mill finished as the state runner-up. They know they must not overlook the talent on the other side of the ball as the Veterans Warhawks pose a threat to ending the Panthers latest run at a state championship. Veterans comes in with a 5-5 record on the season, 2-4 away from home. They played one common opponent with Starr’s Mill this season as both teams suffered losses to Northgate early in the year.
While the Warhawks prepare to try and stop the rushing attack from the Panthers, Starr’s Mill’s biggest concern will be defending the pass. The Panthers will have a lot to handle on defense with the Warhawks strong passing game, and the secondary has been a problem several times this year, making this an interesting matchup. Starr’s Mill’s defense has improved over the course of the season, playing their best in the most recent games against Riverdale and Fayette County. They held both of those teams to only 20 points and showed that they can play well when needed.
The Panthers definitely drew a team in the first round that can compete with, but only time will tell who’s moving on to the next round. Kickoff is tonight at 7:30 at Panther Stadium.