It was far from a perfect game. But for an Elmore County football team that hadn’t tasted victory since mid August, for a corps of seniors who got to finish their football years on a high note, the Panthers’ last-second, come-from-behind win was pretty sweet.
Elmore County closed out a grueling 2-8 season Friday night with a thrilling 21-20 win over Jemison.
The emotions glowed from the faces of seniors Cameron Ledbetter and Dylan Brown.
“I can’t even explain it,” said Brown, an every-down lineman. “You’re happy because you win, but then it’s the last time ever stepping out on this field. I didn’t think I was going to get this emotional, but I just can’t help it.”
Finishing with a win, Ledbetter said, was extra special with a group of guys who’d become his family.
“I’ve seen people come from hardly not ever being played to stepping up, being a man,” he said. “I’m thankful for all my brothers here; every one of them has grown closer to me. I didn’t really have a home life, but these are all my brothers.”
Although the finish was sweet, things looked pretty grim through most of the fourth quarter. The Panthers had finally managed to regain the lead, as quarterback Payton Stephenson punched in the touchdown from 2 yards out to open the frame. On the ensuing drive, Jemison seemed to be on the ropes, but on fourth-and-2 senior running back Josh Gilliland slashed up the middle untouched and went 51 yards for the touchdown. He then added a dash for the two-point conversion, putting Jemison up 20-14.
Then disaster struck, as the kickoff was a line drive that bounced off an Elmore County player and back into Jemison’s hands. But the hometown Panther defense was able to step up and forced Jemison out on downs at the doorstep to the red zone.
Then Elmore County launched its climactic drive. Facing fourth-and-6, Stephenson looked for a receiver, then saw an opening to dash 25 yards. Facing fourth and six again, he found backfield-mate Sean Darnell for 14 yards and the first down. As time ticked under two minutes, Stephenson was violently sacked, but Jemison was given a personal foul for a horsecollar tackle.
The Panthers grabbed another chunk closer when Stephenson completed a 14-yard pass to Christan Stepney, the 6-foot-four junior’s first catch of the season. Then with under 30 seconds to play, Jabari Murphy — a favorite target at receiver — took the end-around toward the corner. Although he tapped the pylon, the side judge called him out at the half-yard line, with time still ticking away.
After a fair amount of argument regarding the spot, as well as the clock, 15 seconds were put back on the clock. Stephenson dove into the end zone, and sophomore place kicker Logan Pack put the Panthers up by one with 12 seconds left to play.
But the intrigue still wasn’t finished. A middle-distance kickoff found fleet-footed Jemison quarterback James Wright, and he very nearly made it. But at 5-foot-6, 110 pounds, Pack was the man who put him on the ground, saving all Eclectic from heartbreak.
He was also perfect on point-after kicks on the night.
Elmore County coach Jordan Cantrell said adversity, and the effort to overcome it, has been a theme throughout this very strangest of football seasons. The Panthers missed two weeks of action midway through the year with nearly two dozen players either COVID-19 positive, or with a contact that required they isolate. The injury bug has also bitten hard, he said.
“Maybe people don’t see it, but they’ve battled,” Cantrell said, his voice quavering a bit. “They’ve come to practice, with one win, all year around, but they’ve battled. We practiced crazily hard this week. They wanted to win a football game. These seniors have laid a legacy, and these young guys are going to step up and lead our team. And they stepped up and lead our team tonight.”
The two Panther squads were pretty evenly matched in output, with Elmore County gaining 319 yards of total offense, to Jemison’s 323. The Panthers were a bit hotter through the air, while Jemison was a bit better rushing.
Jemison tailback Josh Gilliland led all rushers with 187 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Stephenson led the Panthers with 109 yards and two touchdowns. Stephenson also caught a touchdown, thrown by Darnell (usually the tailback) on the Panthers’ first possession of the game. Darnell completed five of six passing attempts for 65 yards.
Jemison head coach Blake Bradley, visibly upset at the chaotic finish of Elmore County’s go-ahead drive, declined comment as he led his Panthers off the field in defeat. Jemison’s season ends with a 3-7 record.