ORLANDO — The 2014 Dr. Phillips Panthers had the look of a football team capable of winning 15 consecutive games and earning the Class 8A state championship trophy.
All the pieces were in place to claim the program’s first state title: senior leadership, postseason experience, a great stable of running backs, a talented offensive line, a hard-hitting defense, game-changing special teams and solid game plans.
Dr. Phillips did register its third consecutive undefeated regular season while sitting atop the Associated Press Class 8A state poll for 10 weeks in a row. The Panthers even had the luxury of playing at Bill Spoone Stadium — where they hadn’t lost a game in five years — for the first three rounds of the playoffs.
However, as Dr. Phillips ultimately learned, there was a small margin for error in the Class 8A bracket this postseason.
Dr. Phillips wasn’t quite sharp enough against a talented Manatee squad Nov. 28, and the result was a three-point loss in the Class 8A Region 2 Final. The Panthers’ quest to reach the Orlando Citrus Bowl (the site of the FHSAA state finals later this month) ended in disappointment after what proved to be a series of races to 24 points.
DP arrived there first in a 24-21 regional quarterfinal victory over unranked Bloomingdale and a 24-10 triumph over No. 5 Tampa Plant. The Panthers were then forced to overcome a pair of two-touchdown deficits on a cold night against No. 7 Manatee, finally tying the game midway through the fourth quarter, but Nickolas Null’s 39-yard field goal gave the upstart Hurricanes a 24-21 triumph.
Dr. Phillips was looking to reach the state semifinals for the first time since 2012, where it lost a fog-shrouded game at Apopka High. Friday’s outcome also represented the first home defeat for DP since an epic five-overtime playoff loss to Apopka in 2009.
“We had two mistakes in the kicking game,” Dr. Phillips head coach Rodney Wells said. “(The Hurricanes) blocked a punt, and they returned a kickoff for a touchdown. You could pick out two or three plays, and you take those plays out, and the outcome is different.
“I told the guys that we had been here before,” he said. “It wasn’t a big deal with us being down at halftime, and I thought we came out and fought (in the second half) and tied it up, and we did what we thought we could do.”
DP’s spread offense never found its rhythm in the playoffs. Opposing defenses typically stacked the box to stop the run this season, and that allowed the Panthers to be selective when it came to their downfield passing game.
Dr. Phillips averaged 130 passing yards per game during the regular season while throwing a touchdown pass in all but one contest. But in three playoff games DP netted only 85 passing yards and zero TDs, leading Wells and his offensive coaching staff to go with a Wildcat formation.
The Panthers (12-1) went exclusively to the running game against Manatee after falling behind 7-0 at halftime.
“We just had to get the ball to our athletes,” Wells said. “Our offensive line is the strength of the team, and we leaned on them. The passing game wasn’t there, but, like I said, we knew the strength of our team was up front. Manatee took away the passing game, and we ran the ball successfully in the second half.”
Manatee (12-1) already had momentum before Jamarion McDonald’s interception on the final play of the first half, but the Hurricanes put DP in an even more difficult spot when Joe Robinson returned the second-half kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown.
Dr. Phillips senior Ethan Shafer, who took a hard hit while having a punt blocked in the first half, got off a short kick toward the sideline to start the third quarter. Robinson fielded the ball and found an open lane for a 13-0 lead.
The Panthers responded with a 65-yard scoring drive. A holding penalty wiped out senior Daquan Isom’s 35-yard touchdown run, but seven plays later, Emare Hogan reached the end zone on a 7-yard run, and Shafer’s extra point made it 14-7 with 7:02 left in the third quarter.
The Dr. Phillips defense, which held firm this season as the Panthers allowed only 148 points in 13 games, helped keep it close until Johnnie Lang’s 9-yard touchdown run pushed Manatee’s lead to 20-7 with 11:41 remaining.
DP countered with Hogan’s second rushing touchdown — this time from 14 yards at the 9:37 mark — and Isom’s punt return gave DP a short field minutes later. Hogan eventually capped a 34-yard, four-play drive by bouncing to the outside and scoring from 10 yards, while Shafer was able to convert a game-tying extra point with 6:20 to go.
But senior quarterback Sloan Drummonds completed a key 14-yard pass to Kelvin McKnight on Manatee’s game-winning drive. A defensive pass interference call also helped set up Null’s decisive kick with 2:36 left.
Dr. Phillips called its final timeout with 81 seconds to go, facing a second-and-20 situation from its 30-yard line after Hogan was sacked for a 10-yard loss. Senior quarterback Rudy Norwood eventually threw an incomplete pass intended for Jeremiah Harris on fourth down, and then Manatee ran out the final 32 seconds to clinch the program’s 60th playoff victory.
Dr. Phillips entered the regional final without injured players Jake Barnett and Jaquarius Bargnare. Barnett’s 91 total tackles through 12 games ranked third among DP defensive players, while Bargnare (who suffered a lower-body injury against Plant) completed his junior season with 625 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns.
“That hurt obviously,” Wells said. “Especially when you’re talking about a senior leader like Jake, who’s been playing so much football for us, it hurts.”
Dr. Phillips finished each of the last three varsity seasons with one loss, after going 10-2 in 2011. Wells specifically pointed to the efforts of the senior class (which measured 32 in number this season) in DP’s comeback victory over Bloomingdale.
“This senior class has got to have one of the best records (46-5) around,” Wells said. “They set a platform for success and they did it with class and they did it with respect and they did it with hard work. It’s just tough to see them all go.”
SENIORS END REMARKABLE RUN
The senior football players at Dr. Phillips were present for a four-year run that saw the program go 46-5. The Panthers’ seniors include: AlexanderAngelo, BoAlexander, GabrielAzarcon, JacobBarnett, Dondrick Brown, ChristopherBruce, TimothyClark, Giovanni Clavier, KelvinClue, AntonioEmmanuel, EladGalili, JaylonHamer, JerremiahHarris, DerrickHerron, DaquanIsom, JeanJulme, MichaelMacon, LorenzonMartinez, NickMason, ColbyMeeks, RudyNorwood, JaleanPerkins, KhaiPerkins, JosephRice, JasonRichards, EthanShafer, JamariSmith, SchandlerSobers, RobertTukdarian, VernonWalker, DanielHitchens, DevinWright, AntonioWyatt and TyreeMiller.