SPRING GARDEN – Time and time again in the second half against Westbrook Christian on Friday night in a pouring rain, Spring Garden’s defense was put in some tough situations.
The unit bent a little, but it didn’t break.
Landon and CJ Gowens batted down consecutive Will Noles pass attempts in the game’s final 8.7 seconds to preserve a hard-fought 14-8 victory in a battle for the top spot of Class 2A, Region 6. Eighth-ranked Spring Garden improved to 6-1 overall and 5-0 in Region 6, while Westbrook Christian dropped to 6-1 and 4-1 in region play.
“Hat’s off to our defense,” Spring Garden head coach Jason Howard said. “We put them in every bad situation you could put them in and they stepped up. (Defensive coordinator Barrett) Ragsdale and the defense, it’s all about them tonight. They did it.”
“Our guys did a great job of executing,” Ragsdale said. “We put in our game plan and preached it all week like we usually do, and the guys on the field just executed. We got some big plays. We had a couple of fourth-down stops. I was just proud of the way our kids fought. We got into some bad spots. We bent, but we didn’t ever break.”
After taking a 14-0 lead in the first half on a pair of Luke Welsh touchdown runs on 14 and 76 yards, the Panther offense began to stall, while Westbrook Christian slowly began to gain some momentum.
Warrior linebacker Cade Phillips help set Westbrook Christian’s offense up with a short field with a fumble recovery at the Panther 18-yard line.
After the Panthers were called for a pass interference penalty on a fourth-and-5 play, Noles finally got the Warriors on the board with 4:38 remaining in the third quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run. He also ran in for the 2-point conversion to trim the Panther lead to 14-8.
With 10:29 remaining in the fourth quarter, Warrior defensive lineman Carl Henry pounced on another loose football near midfield, but this time the Panther ‘D’ prevented Westbrook from gaining a first down on a fourth-and-1 run by Noles at their own 38.
After a Spring Garden punt, Noles drove the Warriors down to the Panther 15, thanks to a 30-yard connection to Yeabsira Scott. However, that drive was stopped when Chaz Pope intercepted a deflected pass in the end zone to give the Panthers the ball back at their own 20 with 6:20 remaining.
It was the second interception by Chaz Pope had in the game. He also made nine tackles.
“I can’t take credit for both of those interceptions. My little brother (Chapel Pope) was tipping them up for me. I’m going to have to give the credit to him on those,” Chaz Pope said. “Without him, I don’t know if I would have picked them off or not. He gave me a little extra time to get there.”
After Chaz Pope’s second interception, Spring Garden’s continued to sputter. The Panthers were forced to punt again with just under five minutes to go, but the defensive unit held firm. Aided by several Warrior penalties, Westbrook Christian was forced to punt.
However, the Warriors recovered a fumble by Spring Garden quarterback Ryley Kirk at the Panther 26 with 2:05 remaining. Once again, Spring Garden’s defense came up big by not yielding a yard. Westbrook went for fourth down, but a Noles pass fell incomplete to turn the ball over on downs with 1:45 left.
Spring Garden tried to run out the clock. Faced with a fourth-and-5 at the 31 with 15.3 seconds remaining, Landon Gowens dropped back to punt. Gowens got the kick off, and the ball rolled down to the Warrior 38 with 8.7 seconds remaining.
“Coach told me if they were rushing hard just to run it, but I saw I had a little time, so I kicked it,” Landon Gowens said, who batted down a Noles pass on the next play.
Then, on the final play of the game, Noles was pressured to throw over the middle, which was batted away by CJ Gowens as the clock expired.
“I thought we played well,” Landon Gowens said, who made his return to the lineup due to an injury before the Hokes Bluff game two weeks ago. “We had to adjust some overloads they were doing. We just filled our gaps and held our ground and didn’t let them get outside.”
Welsh led the Panther defense with 11 tackles. He also ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
Andrew Floyd posted eight tackles and had a fumble recovery.
“That old saying defense wins games, it showed right there,” Welsh said. “We had to make some stops in crunch time. Our offense slowed down in the second half, so the defense had to really kick it up. I think we did pretty good. We messed up some, but we luckily made some plays that made up for that and it worked out in the end.
“This was a big goal for us. I feel like a lot of people might have counted us as underdogs coming into this season. We had to prove something this week that we’re still a dominant team in 2A even though we’ve bumped up. I think we’re on track to prove to some people that we really are.”
Spring Garden hosts Sand Rock on Friday, seeking another step closer to its first 2A, Region 6 title.
“The job’s not done. We’ve still got work to do,” Chaz Pope said. “We’ve got to continue to get better. We’ve got Sand Rock coming in next week, and that should be a good one.”