By Josh Bean | For the AHSAA
TUSCALOOSA – Mars Hill Bible High School coach Darrell Higgins and his Panthers suffered through a winless season just five years ago.
The Panthers (13-2) showed how much things have changed and why the Florence private school has emerged as one of the state’s premiere small-school programs Friday as Mars Hill won its second state championship with a 56-14 win over Abbeville Friday at Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Making a third straight trip to the AHSAA Super 7, the Panthers won the 1A title in 2018, finished as 1A runner-up last year and ended the season winning the school’s first 2A football title.
“We set our minds on getting back here and leaving the last game with a win,” Higgins said, referencing last year’s title-game loss. “We wanted to play our best on the big stage. … This is a great accomplishment and something this team really set their mind to.”
Mars Hill’s Justus McDaniel scored four rushing touchdowns, freshman quarterback and MVP Griffin Hanson threw two touchdown passes to Damian Thompson, and Peyton Higgins returned a kickoff 76 yards for a touchdown after having a 96-yard TD run nullified by penalty.
The kickoff return in the fourth quarter was the ninth of Higgins’ career and set the AHSAA state record. The previous record (8) was set by Florala’s Steven Reese from 1996-98.
Mars Hill’s defense also did its part limiting Abbeville to 117 yards.
The victory gives Mars Hill 14 wins in its last 15 playoff games, while compiling a 41-4 record during the three years of Super 7 appearances.
Abbeville (12-2), coached by first-year head coach LaBrian Stewart, played in its first state championship game since 1971 and tied the single-season school record for wins. Abbeville star Martavious Glanton, the Jackets quarterback, free safety and kick returner, suffered an injury late in the first half and did not return.
Abbeville supplied the game’s first highlight when Martavious Glanton tackled Mars Hill’s Higgins inside the 1 with 1:38 to go in the first quarter and keep the game scoreless.
But the Yellow Jackets’ fumbled it back to the Panthers inside its own 10 a few snaps later, and McDaniel’s 1-yard run on the first play of the second quarter made it 7-0.
Mars Hill took control with two touchdowns in the final 2:52 of the first half for a 20-0 lead, as McDaniel scored on a 1-yard run and Hanson threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Thompson with 33 seconds to go before intermission.
Mars Hill scored three more touchdowns in the third quarter – an 8-yard run by McDaniel, a 41-yard pass from Hanson to Thompson and Hunter Kilpatrick’s 23-yard run – to push the lead to 42-0. McDaniel scored his fourth touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard run for a 49-0 lead.
Abbeville’s Arthur Thomas scored on an 8-yard run midway to make it 49-8 with 5:44 to play, but Higgins returned the ensuing kickoff 76 yards for his touchdown.
“We’ve got some great guys out there blocking for me, and special teams is something we really thrive on,” Peyton Higgins said.
Then, on the next kickoff, Abbeville muffed the short kick and the Yellow Jackets’ Ricavious Dozier picked it up and lateraled to Randy Glanton, who ran 61 yards for a touchdown to make it 56-14.
For Mars Hill, Griffin finished 7-of-12 passing for 222 yards and two touchdowns, and Thompson had four catches for 118 yards and two scores. Higgins added 156 yards rushing on 20 carries and added the kickoff-return touchdown. McDaniel had 1 carries for 75 yards and four touchdowns.
Sam Williams anchored the defense with 8½ tackles.
Jayven Anderson led Abbeville with 9½ tackles, including 2½ for a loss, and Dozier had 11 carries for 50 yards. Dozier also ran in the Jackets’ 2-point conversion.
“No matter if they win this game, they’re winners,” Stewart said of his team.
AHSAA SUPER 7 STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS
At Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa
Wednesday, Dec. 2
CLASS 7A Finals
Thompson (14-0) 29, Auburn (11-2) 28
Thursday, Dec. 3
CLASS 3A Finals
Fyffe (15-0) 21, Montgomery Catholic (12-3) 16
CLASS 1A Finals
Linden (15-0) 32, Pickens County (11-4) 8
CLASS 5A Finals
St. Paul’s Episcopal (15-0) 29, Pleasant Grove (11-3) 21
Friday, Dec. 4
CLASS 4A Finals
Handley (12-1) 35, Gordo (13-2) 20
CLASS 2A Finals
Mars Hill Bible (13-2) 56, Abbeville (12-2) 14
CLASS 6A Finals
Spanish Fort (11-3) vs. Pinson Valley (11-2), 7:30 p.m.