They fought and clawed for 12 games just to get to this point.
After getting past regional top-dog Vero Beach in a 19-7 defensive battle last week, the Dr. Phillips Panthers found themselves pitted against the second-seeded Riverview Sarasota on a wet, chilly night.
Much like last week, the game on Friday, Nov. 23, saw an incredible defensive showing. This time, unfortunately, it was the Panthers (7-6, 4-0) who were on the wrong side as they fell 33-7 in the Class 8A, Region 2 final against the Rams (11-3, 5-1).
“First I just want to say that I’m highly impressed and excited about what this team was able to do,” said Panthers head coach Rodney Wells. “At one point we were 1-4 and everything was going wrong — playoff wasn't even in the picture. So they turned that around and got here, to this point.”
The hardest thing to digest for Dr. Phillips is probably the fact that up until this game, the Panthers had played well-executed football — especially as it related to winning the turnover battle.
During their slow start to the season, the Panthers were on the wrong side of the turnover ratio. But as the season progressed, a flip was seemingly switched as the Panthers would go -12 over the second half of the season.
“We got about six or seven turnovers in the playoffs in two games, and then tonight we give them the ball four times and then let them block a punt,” Wells said. “When you play good teams you can’t make mistakes. We’ve been playing mistake free, and tonight we didn’t.”
Sans an early, two-yard touchdown run by Japerri Powell in the first quarter, the Panthers’ offense stumbled its way to just 174 yards in the game.
“First I just want to say that I’m highly impressed and excited about what this team was able to do. At one point we were 1-4 and everything was going wrong — playoff wasn't even in the picture. So they turned that around and got here, to this point.”
— Rodney Wells
But it was the turnovers Wells spoke of that really cost the Panthers throughout the game.
The Rams took advantage of every pick and fumble that they could grab — grabbing a pick-six to open the second quarter. Two more picks, a botched punt and a fumble would lead to 27 points for the Rams, thanks to lapses by the Panthers’ offense and special teams.
When it came to the turnovers, there were multiple occasions where the ball just happened to fall in the Rams’ favor — something that Wells noticed.
“They had two or three plays — we threw a screen and a kid bobbled it around and he (a Rams defender) ends up catching it, we throw a fade, our kid drops it and it falls right into his hands,” Wells said. “When it’s rolling like that, there’s not much you can do.”
The turnovers also left the Panthers’ defense in some tough spots, which led to a short field for the Rams more times than not.
Despite that being the case, the Panthers stood their ground on several occasions inside their own 15, forcing Rams placekicker Dorian Hall to kick four field goals when it seemed imminent that the Rams would find the end zone. Defensively, the Panthers only gave up two touchdowns.
“I was super proud of them, what they did in the red zone,” Wells said. “When you give up four or five turnovers like we had, the game shouldn't be close — they should have ran away with it. We stuck in there and made them kick field goals, but it was just too much in the end.”
After the game Wells gathered his guys in a semi-circle to talk about the game and congratulate them on another impressive year.
The faces were long, as tears streamed down cheeks and sniffles were being held in check as best as they could be.
For the outgoing seniors, Wells reminded them of the history they played in the program. This year’s batch of seniors were the most successful in terms of playoffs, going 12-3 and winning the state title in 2017 and finishing runner-up in 2016.
And for those returning players — which is a good chunk of the team — there’s a lot to look forward to, Wells said.
“I’m proud of our boys — we’ll be back, we have a lot of kids returning,” Wells said. “We’re going to pick it up, lick our wounds and get back to work.”