SPRING GARDEN – With the type of offensive firepower the Spring Garden Panthers feature, sometimes senior running back Weston Kirk gets lost in the shuffle.
On Friday night in the second round of the Class 2A state playoffs against fifth-ranked Red Bay, the Tigers got a dose of what Kirk can do.
Kirk carried the ball 14 times for 92 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns. He also helped fourth-ranked Spring Garden’s defense turn in a lights-out performance in a 27-2 victory.
Spring Garden (11-1) advances to next Friday’s third round for the third straight season (the last two were in Class 1A). The Panthers will host North Sand Mountain (11-1), which defeated Addison 32-24 in other second-round action on Friday.
Red Bay’s season ends at 9-2.
“I know Luke (Welsh) is the leading rusher on our team, and I know other teams are scouting him hard, but whenever I get a chance to run the ball, I’m going to do my part,” Kirk said. “They’re watching 1 (Welsh’s number) wherever he goes. Tonight, Coach (Jason) Howard mixed it up pretty good and it turned out pretty good for all of us.”
“When we had some gaps, I thought Weston really stepped up and run the ball tonight. He played really well tonight,” Howard said. “We came over to the sideline the start of the fourth quarter, and he was like, ‘Just give it to me.’ I said ‘OK. You’re a senior. You want it. You ask for it. Let’s go.’ He stepped up like a senior is supposed to.”
Kirk wasn’t the only Panther who stepped up.
Chaz Pope put the Panthers in front 7-0 on a 24-yard reverse for a score with 7:37 to go in the first quarter. After the Tigers scored on a safety following a grounding call in the end zone by Ryley Kirk with 4:47 remaining in the first half, Spring Garden’s defense held Red Bay on fourth down on its ensuing possession at the Panther 26-yard line to get the offense the ball back with 1:17 to go.
That was enough time for the Panthers to go up two scores heading into the locker room. Aided by a Tiger personal foul, Ryley Kirk connected with Cooper Austin on a 43-yard strike between a pair of Red Bay defenders. Austin was ruled down at the Tiger 1-yard line, which Ryley Kirk took the ball in for the score with 25.2 seconds remaining. Cam Welsh’s extra point provided the Panthers with a 14-2 halftime lead.
“It was critical,” Howard said of the score before halftime. “Cooper made an unbelievable catch on that. We felt like when we got up, we were going to run the clock out, but then we got the penalty. It let us take a shot. Cooper went between two of them, made the catch, and got down to the 1. Pushing it in from there and knowing we were going to get the ball back in the second half was big.”
As Howard said, Spring Garden had a chance to go up even more after receiving the ball to begin the third quarter, but Red Bay’s defense held the Panther offense to a three-and-out and forced a punt.
The Tigers drove inside the Panther red zone on their ensuing drive, but once again, Spring Garden’s defense came up big on a fourth-and-2 at their own 12. They held running back Aiden Quinn just short of a first down to get the ball back for the Panther offense near the 10.
However, Spring Garden’s offense was held to three downs and out again, setting up another punt.
Once again, Red Bay drove deep inside Panther territory, but once again, Spring Garden’s defense held. This time, Austin picked off Tiger quarterback Jalen Vinson’s fourth-down pass in the end zone, spoiling another Red Bay scoring opportunity.
“All week, (Defensive) Coach (Barrett) Ragsdale was preaching if we could get them behind the sticks and make them pass it, then we’d be in good shape,” Austin said. “I knew we needed a stop. Sure enough, my guy went out on a route. He (Vinson) threw it to my guy and my eyes lit up. I knew I could make a play on the ball. It kind of sealed the game. It was a big play.”
On a predominantly run-oriented team, Vinson was forced to throw the ball 21 times. He completed just four passes for 34 yards with three interceptions. Vinson also led the Tiger ground attack with 64 yards on eight carries. Quinn carried the ball 13 times for 60 yards.
After a Panther fumble with 2:26 to go in the third, Red Bay’s offense continued to sputter. Another fourth-down try was stuffed by the Panther defense.
Then, it became the Weston Kirk show.
He scored on a 36-yard run early in the fourth quarter, then put the exclamation point on the game with a 1-yard run with 5:45 remaining after another Panther defensive stop.
“They played great,” Howard said of his defense. “I felt like our defensive ends, Weston and Landon, the whole defensive front, Nate Law, Jackson Rogers, Mathias (Williams), Zack Kerr, we rotated a bunch of people in. The secondary had everything covered up. That was big.”
Ryley Kirk completed 8-of-17 pass attempts for 131 yards. He also ran for 22 yards on 11 carries with a score. Austin caught five passes for 86 yards. Welsh gained 39 yards on 13 carries. He also had an interception on a tipped ball by Austin on defense.
All of those big all-around performances helped the Panthers earn another big playoff game at home, and in bigger class.
“It doesn’t matter what class we’re in. We’re going to put up a dogfight,” Austin said.
“I feel like we’ve been doubted all four years I’ve been here (on varsity),” Weston Kirk said. “Making the state championship game is our goal. This is what me, Ryley, Luke, all the seniors have dreamed of since we were three or four years old, just come out here and put on a Spring Garden uniform and win a state championship in football.”
“We felt like it was a bit of a blow when we got bumped up to 2A, but then we said we’re not going to talk about it anymore. We put that behind us,” Howard said. “We were planning on winning 1A, so let’s go give 2A a shot and see if anybody can get in our way.
“This group believes they can win, and that’s big. I’m proud of this group. A lot of people doubt us, but we just keep going.”
Spring Garden football coach Jason Howard