The Warriors led 31-7 midway through the third quarter, but the Panthers stormed back with 21-unanswered points. West Orange ultimately held on for the 31-28 win, though, improving to 2-1 on the season.
For the second time in the span of a week, the West Orange Warriors found themselves in a game where a furious comeback attempt was taking place.
Unlike in Week Two, though — when West Orange rallied from a 21-point deficit against Rockledge before ultimately falling 49-42 — this time it was the Warriors that found themselves as the team trying to hold off the surging Dr. Phillips Panthers. The Warriors led 17-0 early and extended their lead to 31-7 in the third quarter before the Panthers came storming back.
West Orange (2-1) weathered the 21-point swing in favor of Dr. Phillips (1-2), though, holding on for a 31-28 victory and retaining the "Ole Orange Crate" rivalry trophy for the first time since 2015.
Most importantly, though, was the value the game will have for the Warriors going forward as they try to navigate a loaded district and region to return to the FHSAA Class 8A Playoffs.
"I'm just really proud of the guys — they kept their composure," West Orange head coach Bob Head said. "100% — (it was a) must-win. I felt like Rockledge was a must-win and we lost, so that really put more pressure on this game. ... It's hard to beat Dr. Phillips on the road."
Things started well for the Warriors from their opening drive. Junior running back Nemea Hall broke free of Dr. Phillips tacklers and scored on a 50-yard rush that set the tone early. That was followed later in the first quarter by Elijah Stimmell connecting with Darrell "DJ" Harding on a 33-yard touchdown pass — the first of two between the quarterback and receiver.
West Orange led 17-7 at halftime and when Tyler Jones jumped a route for a pick-six interception midway through the third quarter, the lead had ballooned to 31-7.
The Panthers weren't ready to call it a game, though. Former Warrior Brenden Cyr, now the starting quarterback for Dr. Phillips, scored on the ensuing drive and later connected on a touchdown pass to Devon Buckhanon, combining to cut the 24-point lead to 10 points.
Later, backup quarterback Canaan Mobley connected on a touchdown strike to Jalen Washington with just over a minute to go to cut the Warriors' lead to three points.
All the while during the Panthers' rally, a gassed West Orange defensive unit was trying to bend but not break.
"It was crazy — we just had to do our jobs," senior defensive back Austin Chilton said. "Running out the clock was a big deal ... this was a good team win."
"100% — (it was a) must-win. I felt like Rockledge was a must-win and we lost, so that really put more pressure on this game. ... It's hard to beat Dr. Phillips on the road."
— Bob Head, West Orange head coach
Giuliano Baber recovered an onside kick that effectively sealed the deal for West Orange, allowing the Warriors to run out the clock. Afterward, Head lamented his team's turnovers and errors that allowed the Panthers to come storming back, but also acknowledge how well his team played for stretches of the rivalry game.
"Our tempo was there and we had a lot of confidence," Head said. "We were clicking on run and pass and, at the same time, our defense was really flying around. ... It's just we got sloppy and had a lot of mental errors."
The win over last fall's state champions in Class 8A will mean much for a West Orange team that just missed the playoffs in 2017, and which has not beat Dr. Phillips since current seniors were freshmen.
"It feels great," Harding said. "I've got a lot friends over there — a lot of family, we call them — so it feels good to beat them. I know they're hurting, but we felt the same way the last couple of years."