On a night that featured a little bit of everything, finding a headline can be challenging. For starters, the Pride fell short of a comeback in what would have been an epic way to finish an even more epic evening.
Panther Creek (0-1) came into Marshall L. Hamilton stadium to face Leesville (1-0) on the home opener for the Pride, and after a week full of hype, excitement, and speculation, the game lived up to it’s expectations.
Despite Panther Creek’s quarterback Dom Samson throwing for seven touchdowns and putting up 54 points, the Pride stuck around, and Leesville quarterback Clay Vick was able to throw for five touchdowns of his own in record setting fashion. However, as time and yardage ran out, the Pride couldn’t convert a crucial 4th down in Panther Creek territory, and the Catamounts went on to win a game that eclipsed the centry mark in total points, 54-48.
The game was also the first home game for Leesville Road’s Brad Wilson, their new coach hired this spring. Additionally, a food drive was held at the gate and filming took place for Leesville’s bid in the HighSchoolOT “Student Section Showdown.”
Penalties, special teams, and lots of touchdowns
After a blowout against an overpowering Wake Forest squad in week one, Panther Creek was seeking redemption in week two, and they played like it in the first half.
The first three possessions of the game resulted in touchdowns, and the score was 14-7 before a minute had come off the clock. Panther Creek’s quarterback Dom Samson threw a poorly defended touchdown pass and a couple of big returns, one for a touchdown, hurt the Pride. Special teams would prove to be a big story of the evening.
“Defense and special teams hurt us. They had big returns all night. We had some breakdowns, but that’s gonna happen. Three penalties on three touchdowns really, really cost us,” said Leesville head coach Brad Wilson.
Both teams employed the fast paced, no huddle offense at times, although Leesville did it more consistently throughout the evening. As the shootout continued, the two quarterbacks began to duke it out. Vick showed off his rushing ability when he dove into the end zone to even things up at 14 all with 6:45 left in the first, but within two minutes, Panther Creek had found the endzone again with Dom Samson’s second TD pass of the evening.
As Samson relentlessly led his team down the field, Vick responded. He hit junior Cooper Eason Riddle and made it 27-21 with one long passing play. Eason Riddle and fellow junior receiver Matt Hamilton would prove to be big for the Pride that night.
Panther Creek again scored in the second, and made it 34-21. The defense was showing obvious signs of exhaustion, but there was no answer to Panther Creek’s surging QB and strong receiving core. With 2:47 left before the half, Panther Creek completed a deep pass to make it 41-21. The Pride needed an answer before halftime.
Their answer came in the form of a second Vick-to-Eason Riddle touchdown. With a minute remaining, special teams came back to haunt the Pride again. A 50 yard return gave Panther Creek outstanding field position and Samson completed three short passes to push the Catamounts into the end zone again.
So, after a first half in which a lack of special teams, defense, and awareness (Leesville would have three touchdowns on the night called back because of penalties) led to an onslaught, the Pride needed a break. It was 48-28 going into the half.
Signs of life and defense, finally
After a rousing halftime speech by coach Wilson and a very focused warm up on the field, the Pride came out ready to fight.
“I told them don’t quit,” said Wilson, “And that I was going to find out the character of them right now. I challenged them, and I wanted them to fight until the very end.”
Kick returner Matt Hamilton returned the ball deep into Panther Creek territory on the kick, and seconds later the Pride found themselves in the end zone celebrating a touchdown. Or, they thought it was a touchdown. Holding would bring the ball back 15 yards.
However, another Clay Vick touchdown would make the score 48-34. After a brief pause for an injured Panther Creek player, play resumed, and the Pride lost their momentum yet again. After a pass that brought the Catamounts to the 3 yard line, they scored another passing touchdown soon after. Samson’s TD count was up to seven at this point.
Then, the defense showed up. All of a sudden Catamount drives were four and outs and quick, inefficient trips down the field. Right on cue, the Pride offense recognized this and took advantage. Vick hit Hamilton for a 31 yard reception that brought the ball to the Catamount 15 yard line, and the Pride scored two plays after.
As the evening got later and later, things kept changing in favor of the Pride. The Pride strung together two consecutive defensive stops on drives and the Pride got the ball back late. The return team brought it back to the Panther Creek 17, and Eason Riddle made two clutch catches to take the crowd over the edge. Sure enough, the Pride punched it in again on a Vick TD, and the house was rockin’. Make that 54-48, Panther Creek.
Trying to complete a third consecutive defensive stop, the Pride forced two incomplete passes and Panther Creek executed a long punt that forced Leesville to start from their own 8 yard line. The Pride would have to go 92 yards to force overtime or better yet, win the game on a PAT.
As the coaches tried to calm the crowd, the players began their final drive. It started off poorly, and it was 4th down from the 10 before anyone could look up. However, Vick connected with his go-to receiver to keep the comeback attempt alive. As a few more first downs were strung together, Vick was tested again. The Panther Creek defense stepped up and forced another 4th down. With 2:16 to go, Vick converted again to his number one wideout. But with 28 seconds to go, following two incompletions and a minor run, the Pride’s attempt to steal a win came up short. Vick scrambled to his left and as he went down and threw a desperation pass to the end zone, only to be batted away by Justin Smalls of Panther Creek. The score would stay put at 54-48.
After the game, Coach Wilson had nothing but praise for his teams second half effort.
“These boys did everything I asked of them,” he said. “I’m proud of these kids, and I’m proud of those people in the stadium. What a great high school atmosphere to be in.”
How about those Loonies
Although the night didn’t end in the home teams favor, the notoriously loud and numerous Leesville Loonies brought their A game all night long. Amongst all of the new things going on that evening, it’s no wonder why there were so many fans.
“This (the Loonies) is what this is all about. Everything came together tonight,” said Wilson.
As he heard the drumline and students still cheering after the game, Wilson stopped mid-interview. He looked over and said, “Man, I love this place,” shook his head, and then resumed listening. He even got choked up later in the interview.
“The loonies, the fans, the place…really?”, Wilson said as he wiped his eyes. “This place is awesome.”
Other than football, the food drive also went on as the evening progressed, and folks were lined up at the entrance gate full of canned foods and other items to donate to the NC Food Bank. Also, the team debuted it’s new tunnel right before kickoff and new alma mater after the game. Although many students filed out before it was played, students are hoping more people will stick around next time.
The team took a new entrance into Hamilton stadium, as they started in the basement of the Murphy building, worked their way outside and behind the bleachers, and then past the fans into the tunnel. “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC was played to fans enjoyment as the team made their entrance.
Additionally, as part of Leesville’s official submission to the HighSchoolOT “Student Section Showdown” contest, cameras and videotapes were hovering the student section all night long. There was never a time that the Loonies sat down other than two injuries in which they were right back up as soon as possible.
At one point in the game, right after the Loonies had led the student section in the rollercoaster, Mrs. Newhouse, who has been an administrator at Leesville and seen the Loonies over many years, had high praise for this year’s senior class.
“This is the best senior class I’ve ever seen, and the best spirit I’ve ever seen, maybe ever.”
Praise like that makes you wonder what the Loonies have in store next week.
Takeaways from the game
The main things the Pride will have to work on this week will be special teams and defense for a full game of football. At times the two units worked excellently together and the play showed. At other times however, the youth and inexperience of the Pride showed. It should be a busy week in practice.
The good thing is that the offense never took a break. Other than two interceptions, Clay Vick led the Pride offense to 48 points, not shabby by anyones account, and fell just eight yards short of the NCHSAA record for most passing yards in a single game with 659 yards and five touchdowns.
“We’ve just got to keep working on everything,” Wilson said. “When a team shows you what they’ve showed me tonight, it’s exciting. This is a good football team and this game showed them they can overcome anybody, especially defensively.”
The receiving core also shined throughout the evening, as Matt Hamilton had 13 catches for 249 yards and two TD’s. Jordon Moore and Dustin Leak also tacked on over receiving 100 yards each in the effort, not to mention the many clutch catches from Eason Riddle.
“It’s just awesome to play with a receiving core like that each night. They are a part of me on the field. But this game is in the past now, and we’ve got to focus on the future,” said receiver Cooper Eason Riddle.
One notable injury worth watching is Clay Vick’s kneecap. This was described as an “ongoing injury” that “Clay has been dealing with for a while.”
The Pride’s next game will take place in Greenville, North Carolina against Rose High School. The game is slated for Thursday evening, not Friday, as Friday is an early release day.