Two big touchdown rushes in the first half and four interceptions in the second half paved the way for the Panthers to a book a return trip to Camping World Stadium for the FHSAA Class 8A State Championship Game.
APOPKA After opening the playoffs with a win at home nearly a month ago, the Dr. Phillips football team has been making a living and staying alive on the road.
There was a thriller in Kissimmee Nov. 17, a win down in Sarasota Nov. 24 and, most recently, a 28-7 state semifinal victory over Wekiva Friday night in Apopka.
Thanks to Friday's win, the Panthers (12-2) now have a date with Delray Beach’s Atlantic High in the FHSAA Class 8A State Championship — and with just nine miles along Interstate 4 separating Camping World Stadium and Dr. Phillips High, it might as well be a home game.
“It feels excellent — we’ve been talking about finishing all year,” head coach Rodney Wells said. “We’ve been on the road with three tough opponents … now we get to go back to what we call home — at Camping World Stadium — and finish it off.”
Friday’s state semifinal was the second meeting of the two powerhouses from Orange County’s west side this season.
While the Mustangs (12-2) had shutout the Panthers in the regular season, Dr. Phillips wasted no time in getting on the board this time around.
On the first play from scrimmage, Panthers junior running back Brandon Fields found a seam and scampered 73 yards to the end zone. It was the first of two big plays for Dr. Philips in the first half — the other was a 72-yard touchdown run by quarterback BeSean McCray — and it quickly made clear that the Panthers’ offense had come prepared.
“When you come out and you get seven (points) in the first minute of the game, that kind of sets the tone,” Wells said.
The Mustangs received the ball coming out of halftime and instead of punching back, the home team gave the ball away via interception on three consecutive drives. The first pass was picked off by Tarrie Reese, setting the stage for a McCray touchdown pass to Devodney Alford.
On the next possession, Bryan Bell-Anderson came away with the interception and returned the ball 40 yards for a touchdown.
With the Panthers’ lead having doubled in a matter of minutes, a third pass was intercepted by Braxton Clark.
Wekiva’s Cayvian Holmes scored the Mustangs’ sole touchdown later in the third after a fumble by the Panthers’ gave the ball to Wekiva deep in their own territory — but a larger rally never manifested itself, and Dr. Phillips cruised the rest of the way.
Bell-Anderson recorded another interception in the fourth quarter, giving him two on the day.
In addition to the four turnovers the Panthers defense created, it held Wekiva to 194 yards of total offense and repeatedly stuff the Mustangs on fourth-down attempts.
Now, a year after Dr. Phillips lost in heartbreaking fashion in the state championship game to Miami’s Southridge High, the Panthers will return to the site of that disappointment at 8 p.m. Dec. 9 against Atlantic.
“For us to lose 37 seniors, and to lose a lot of playmakers on offense and defense — and to get back there (to the state championship game) — it just says a lot about our seniors and our captains,” Wells said.
Observer Preps correspondant Nate Marrero contributed to this report.