SPRING GARDEN – The Ryley Kirk-to-Cooper Austin connection was missing in action from Spring Garden’s key Class 2A, Region 6 win over Westbrook Christian last week due to rainy conditions from Hurricane Delta.
On Friday night against Sand Rock, and on a dry field, the Kirk-to-Austin connection proved unstoppable for the Sand Rock Wildcats.
Kirk hit on 9 of his 13 pass attempts for 185 yards and three touchdowns – all to Austin, who had seven catches for 154 yards – in the Panthers’ 55-19 thrashing. The win secured the region title for seventh-ranked Spring Garden (7-1, 6-0), its first in Class 2A.
“1A or 2A, no matter what, anytime you win a region championship it’s special,” Panther head coach Jason Howard said. “I don’t think anybody coming in really gave us a chance to win it. I think everybody thought we would do good to be a four seed in the region and make the playoffs. For our kids to step up and do the things they did, I’m real proud of them.
“We haven’t lost a region game in three years, counting this year. That’s something we hang our hat on.”
Kirk said he was just thankful to be back playing on a dry field.
“I found Cooper most of the night, but I don’t think I did a real good job of spreading the ball around,” he said. “Our linemen gave us some time to throw, and I’m grateful for that.”
“Me and Ryley are always talking about making a connection,” Austin said. “He always tells me ‘I’m throwing it up, so go get it.’ I don’t have to go get it because I’ve got the best quarterback in the state. Our line blocked tremendously tonight. It might have been one of the best blocked games we’ve had all year.”
The Panther duo made its presence felt early. Less than two minutes into the game, Kirk found Austin for a 45-yard score to put Spring Garden in front 6-0.
After a Sand Rock punt, the two hooked up again on a 30-yard scoring strike. Chaz Pope took a reverse and threw a pass to Luke Welsh for the 2-point conversion, pushing the Panther lead to 14-0 with 6:19 remaining in the first quarter.
After connecting on his first three pass attempts, Kirk proved he was mortal on the Panthers’ next possession. He tossed his first interception of the season. The Wildcats’ Colton Cash made the pick and returned the ball to midfield, but the Panther defense forced Sand Rock’s offense into another three-and-out.
In the second quarter, Luke Welsh got the ground game going with his 7-yard touchdown run. Cam Welsh’s extra point made it 21-0 with 10:42 left in the first half.
Luke Welsh scored again on Spring Garden’s next possession, this time on a 5-yard scamper to put the Panthers in front 28-0. He finished the game with 120 yards on 13 carries and three touchdowns.
The Wildcats (3-5, 2-4) finally got on the scoreboard with just over five minutes remaining in the first half on a 71-yard scoring strike from quarterback Ace Ashley to tight end Logan Crider. Ethan Clanton’s point after made it 28-7.
The Panthers responded with Luke Welsh’s final touchdown on their next drive. This one went for 38 yards, and it gave Spring Garden a 35-7 advantage.
After a partially-block punt on Sand Rock’s next possession, Kirk and Austin connected on their third touchdown of the half – a 12-yard score – to put the Panthers in front 42-7 at halftime.
Spring Garden’s Weston Kirk opened the third-quarter scoring with a 5-yard touchdown run. He finished with 65 yards on six totes with a touchdown.
Sand Rock’s Ashley connected with Crider for a second Wildcat score, also from five yards. The Panthers’ Andrew Floyd added a 3-yard touchdown run with just over a minute left in the third quarter to give Spring Garden a 55-13 lead. Floyd finished with 51 yards on eight carries and a score.
Ashley capped the game’s scoring with his 15-yard touchdown toss to running back Jacob Cornejo with 5:42 remaining in the game for the final.
Ashley led the Wildcats by completing 15-of-32 pass attempts for 197 yards and three touchdowns. Crider caught eight passes for 124 yards and a pair of scores. Clanton led the Wildcat ground game with 52 yards on seven carries.
Sand Rock travels to Cleveland on Friday. Spring Garden is at Southeastern.
“We’ve got two games left (in the regular season). We need to get two wins there and have some momentum heading into the playoffs so we can try to make a run at it,” Ryley Kirk said.