by Rob Grubbs
The Starr’s Mill Panthers parlayed a precision offense and a strong senior class to a region championship and two playoff wins this season, but their opponent in the quarterfinals was something of a different challenge. The Rome Wolves came in as defending state champions riding a 24-game winning streak. They are talented, well-coached, and experienced. Most troublesome was that the Wolves defensive front full of SEC recruits would create havoc on the base offensive sets that are foundational to the Panthers’ success. Starr’s Mill showed the grit and resiliency of a senior-led team by scoring on an 80-yard drive late in the second quarter to pull within one score at 17-10, but Rome simply had too much firepower and relentlessly put the Panthers away for the 59-10 win.
Panther coach Chad Phillips knew he would have to throw everything he had at the Wolves, and he waisted little time, going with a halfback pass on the second play from scrimmage. The pass from Cole Gilley to Joey DeLuca netted 31 yards and put the Panthers in Rome territory early. A Panther punt pinned the Wolves deep, and when Wolves fullback Marquez Kirby fumbled into the end zone on a long would-be scoring run, it appeared the game was playing into the Panthers’ hands and they were getting some home field breaks. Rome quickly changed that with two long scoring drives to finish out the first quarter up 14-0.
After taking those punches, the Panthers fought to stay in the game. On their next possession, DeLuca found tight end Charlie Mizzell over the middle for 55 yards to set up a Michael Lantz field goal to put points on the board. The Panther defense had their strongest work of the night when they stopped the Rome offense inside the ten-yard line and forced a field goal.
On the next possession, DeLuca executed a perfect ball fake and sprinted 56 yards on keeper deep into Rome territory. After a 17-yard pass from DeLuca to Nick Brown on 3rd down, Khalen Sims scored from the 5 and the Panthers were right there with the best team in the state at 17-10 with four minutes until half. It seemed as if they could get to halftime only down seven, anything could happen. Unfortunately, Rome found a new gear when they got pressed, scoring twice before the half to go up 31-10.
With the Wolves getting the second half kickoff, it was imperative for the Panthers to get a stop, but Rome quarterback Knox Kadum found Jevard Williams open for a 77-yard touchdown pass on the second play, and the Panthers could feel it slipping away. Their base offense is not built for a big comeback, and the defense for Rome was just too good. While they continued to play to the whistle with pride and class, they knew the season was winding down. The Wolves scored late on a punt return by Xavier Roberts and a 5-yard touchdown from Nick Burge for the final margin.
While much was made of Rome’s stout defensive line, their offensive line was equally big and talented, which paved the way for their 339 rushing yards. Jamious Griffin was their biggest weapon, piling up 92 yards and 3 touchdowns on 9 rushing attempts with 50 more yards on 2 catches.
For the Panthers, DeLuca accounted for almost their entire offense. He rushed for 41 yards, passed for 117, and caught a pass for 32 yards, which was 190 of their total of 265, against arguably the best defense in the state. He and the remainder of the senior class leave some big shoes to fill.
“In 2012 and 2013, we struggled and got away with some of the things that made us successful, so when these seniors were freshman, we decided to go back to the option-Wing T, and this group was instrumental in buying in,” said Coach Phillips. “They had a positive influence on the classes ahead of them and have built something special for years to come. They got to play in 48 games, almost five full seasons. They won two region championships, went to playoffs four straight years, and got to the second round three consecutive times. They raised the bar for this program and this school. We appreciate what they did and will certainly miss them.”
They’ve seldom seem a foe quite like Rome.
“We played Camden County in 2004, and their defense was really good, but tonight was a different level,” he said. “We struggled to run our offense, but I am proud of our guys and how they showed up. We never quit fighting, we have too much pride.”
Rome will play Buford in the semifinals next in a rematch of last year’s state championship. While Phillips and his staff will start the rebuilding process. They like where the bar has been set and they aren’t afraid of the work they’ll need to do to keep it there.
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