SPRING GARDEN – Not too long ago, the Spring Garden Panthers were predominantly a running team. In recent years, head coach Jason Howard has expanded the passing the game behind quarterback Ryley Kirk.
But in the Class 2A state football quarterfinals on Friday night against North Sand Mountain, the Panthers went retro for some good old fashioned smash-mouth football.
Luke Welsh ran for 125 yards on 20 carries with a touchdown. Weston Kirk collected 88 yards on 13 carries. Ryley Kirk contributed 66 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, and Chaz Pope posted 50 yards on four totes with a touchdown in the Panthers’ 21-0 victory.
The win secured fourth-ranked Spring Garden’s first trip to the state semifinals in school history, where the Panthers (12-1) will travel to top-ranked Mars Hill Bible (11-2) next Friday. Mars Hill steamrolled Aliceville 55-14 in other third round action on Friday.
North Sand Mountain’s record season ends at 11-2.
“We knew they (North Sand Mountain) were going to be a physical team, but we pride ourselves on being physical too,” Welsh said. “We get away from the run sometimes, but it’s because Ryley can throw the ball. Tonight, it was an opportunity for us to do old school, just run the ball and grind it out. I would say we held the ball most of the time tonight, and that’s big in a deep playoff game, to maintain the clock, grind it out and hit them.”
For Welsh, he said Friday’s game against the Bison was personal.
“I feel like I let the community and the team down(last week against Red Bay). I didn’t really do my job when everybody expects me to,” he said. “I was kind of told that during the week jokingly, and it kind of got to me. I knew I personally needed to step it up.”
Speaking of stepping up, Ryley Kirk didn’t have his best night throwing the football, but he stepped things up with his legs. He only completed 4-of-13 pass attempts for 34 yards, but he managed to hurt the Bison several times with his legs.
“I don’t run that much, but Coach Howard told me early in the week I was going to have to step up and run it more than usual,” he said. “Our line did a real good job and I’m thankful for them.”
“Our offensive line blocked their tails off,” Weston Kirk said. “We moved Cade (Williams) from center to guard, and I feel like that was a great move. We had Landon (Gowens) at tackle, and that man’s a beast. We’ve got a lot of weapons in the backfield we can give the ball to. Chaz, Ryley, Cooper, Luke, Andrew (Floyd), me, I feel like once we get the ball in our hands, we all can make something happen.”
As impressive as the Panther rushing attack was on Friday night, the defense turned in another shutdown performance itself. The Panther ‘D’ held the Bison to just 83 total yards, including minus-8 yards rushing. Spring Garden’s starting defensive unit hasn’t allowed the opposition any points the past two weeks, and has just allowed one touchdown in the entire playoffs.
“I think our defense has been playing great,” Howard said. “Our defensive front played real well. We were able to man up everybody in the secondary, and the ability of our secondary to man up allows us to bring pressure up front. (Defensive) Coach (Barrett) Ragsdale had a good game plan, just like he always does. I thought the boys went out and executed it real well.”
Defense was the name of the game in the first half for both teams. After a scoreless first quarter, the Panthers finally got on the board on Pope’s 15-yard touchdown run with 8:15 to go in the first half. Cam Welsh’s extra point provided Spring Garden a 7-0 lead.
“Obviously it was a pretty big play. It got the momentum swaying our way,” Pope said. “Weston had a great block. He’s been blocking real well. Everybody else was locked up on their guy, so it was wide open.”
The Panthers could have gone up even more in the second quarter after Jackson Rogers recovered a fumble inside the Bison 20-yard line. However, penalties backed the Panthers up and the Bison held on a fourth-down play at their own 26 to keep the score at 7-0.
After Spring Garden forced North Sand Mountain to punt to open the third quarter, Ryley Kirk guided the Panthers on a 10-play, 80-yard drive in which he took it into the end zone himself from two yards. Another Cam Welsh extra point gave Spring Garden a two-touchdown advantage at 14-0 with 8:24 remaining in the third quarter.
On the next offensive series, Cooper Austin killed a substantial Bison drive with an interception of quarterback Lake Bell at the Panther 3. However, Spring Garden’s offense couldn’t cash in the turnover and was forced to punt.
The Panthers put the game away with 5:59 left the fourth quarter on Welsh’s 7-yard score, which capped a 13-play, 62-yard drive.
“They were determined (to shut down the passing game),” Howard said. “They double covered Cooper all night. It’s like (former Sand Rock) Coach (Russell) Jacoway tells me all the time. I’ve got to give him a little credit here. It’s pick your poison. If you’re going to stop our passing game, then we’ve got Luke and Weston and Chaz. I felt like we ran the ball well tonight. It was big in the second half being able to grind the clock out.”
Bell led the Bison by completing 8-of-19 pass attempts for 91 yards. Fernando Luna added 27 yards on eight carries.
Even though history continued for the Panthers in their first season of Class 2A on Friday, they’re not content with things ending in this Friday’s state semifinals. They feel since they’ve made it this far, they might as well go all the way.
“Ever since that day we moved up, we have worked our tails off in the weight room, at practice, running, doing whatever Coach Howard says,” Weston Kirk said. “I feel like we’ve really bought in this year. I feel like that’s what’s making this team go on this long ride.”
“Maybe, just maybe we’ve earned a little bit of respect,” Howard said. “I don’t feel like anyone has respected us (moving up to 2A). We’ve talked about it all year. Respect (is) earned. Now let’s go play whoever we’ve got to play and see what happens.”