“These boys came short tonight, but they will never come up short in life, that I am sure of,” said head coach Erik Soliday after the game Friday Nov. 23. The semi-final playoff game before the state championship was an emotional game to watch for Panthers fans.
The Panthers previously beat out Trinity Christian Academy in the second round of the playoffs. The Tiftarea Panthers beat out the Crusaders 49-7, advancing them to the semi-final game.
Soliday lined up across the field from John Milledge Academy football head coach, J.T. Wall, like two generals locked in a game of chess. The first half started as a defensive game, with no major offensive drives from either side.
The John Milledge Trojans received the first kick. For the first time all season, a team was able to complete a first down against the Panthers’ defense in the first drive of the game. Despite receiving a first down, the Trojans fumbled the ball on the first drive and Adam McKinney recovered the fumble.
The Panthers’ offense came back to the field using two back-to-back quarterback sneaks. Logan Crossan, the Panthers’ quarterback, was able to receive a first down after running the ball. Spence Massey ran the ball 8 yards on the next down. Crossan completed a short pass to Dalton Jones, but the catch was short of the first down.
The special teams stepped on to the field in punting formation. Carter Stewart faked the punt and the team ran the ball up the middle. After fooling the Trojans on fourth down, Tiftarea received a new set of downs. Once Tiftarea special teams fooled the Trojans, Crossan threw an interception to John Milledge cornerback, Marcus Prestwood.
The Trojans sent their offense back on to the field, but Panthers’ sophomore defensive lineman, Jackson Hoover sacked John Milledge quarterback Brandon Bellflower for a loss of yards. The Panthers’ defense forced the Trojans to punt the ball away on fourth down.
McKinney was able to complete two short gains when the Panthers’ offense came back to the field, however, they were too short to gain a first down. The Panthers were forced to give up the ball again on fourth down when they punted.
Jones and Noah Copeland worked together on defense all night to bring down the powerful running back from John Milledge. The first quarter ended, and both teams had yet to score.
The second quarter started with the Trojans having control of the ball on fourth down. The team converted to first down with a successful drive from senior Trojan running back, Jared Prestwood.
The Panthers’ defense eventually made the Trojans punt the ball and the Trojan punter, Justin Lemme punted the ball to the 15-yard line. Bo Cummingham caught a first down pass from Logan Crossan. The Panthers failed to move the ball any further and had to punt the ball. Senior punter, Carter Stewart punted the ball to the 1-yard line.
With the horrible field position, the Trojans scrambled to move the ball. The team couldn’t run or pass the ball with the poor field position, so they punted. Trojan Punter, Lemme stepped out of the end zone before punting the ball, resulting in a safety.
The Panthers put the first score on the board with 2-0, Tiftarea in the lead.
The Panthers received the kickoff after the safety. The Panthers tried using all four downs for the first down but ended up turning the ball over instead with very little time left in the first half. The Trojans moved the ball as close to their end zone as possible and kicked a field goal. The score at halftime was 2-3, John Milledge winning.
The Trojans kicked off to the Panthers for the second half. Jones ran the kick to the 40-yard line and the offense got set-up on the field. Crossan started the drive off with a short pass to Cunningham. Render Robbins caught a short pass from Crossan. On the next down, Crossan set back in the pocket and locked on with Casen Royal. Royal caught the pass and gave the team a huge first down.
Crossan handed the ball off to Massey and it resulted in the first touchdown all game. Cunningham successfully kicked a field goal for the extra point. The Panthers didn’t celebrate long though, because the Trojan’s offense arrived at the second half ready to play.
In just a handful of downs, the Trojans easily scored a touchdown with a field goal. The score moved to 10-9 with John Milledge in the lead. When the Panthers re-fielded their offense, they couldn’t keep up the same pace they entered the second half with. The Trojan’s defense kept up the pressure on the Panthers until the game ended.
After the Panthers turned the ball over to the Trojan’s offense, they were able to put up another touchdown. The score moved to 9-17, John Milledge winning. Despite the scoreboard moving in the Trojans favor, Soliday and the Panthers refused to give up. The Panthers played every down trying to overcome the adversity John Milledge presented them with.
Tiftarea got the ball back, and Crossan focused his offense on moving down the field. Royal caught a first down pass from Crossan on the 35-yard line. Cunningham caught a short pass from Crossan to keep the ball moving forward. Next, Crossan handed the ball to Massey for another touchdown. For the two-point-conversion, the ball was hiked to Massey, who then threw a pass to Crossan. The switch-up on the field disoriented the Trojans.
Soliday tied the game up but knew the game was far from over. Wall sent his Trojan’s offense back on to the field to continue their fight to the state championship. The fourth quarter started with both teams tied, and 12 minutes to decide who the winner was.
The Panthers stopped the Trojans and forced a punt. The Panthers’ offense took the field but were also stopped for a turnover. When the ball went back to John Milledge, the Panthers started running out of time to make something happen.
Despite the best efforts made from the Panthers’ defense, the team couldn’t stop the Trojans from scoring another touchdown. The scoreboard moved to 17-24 with John Milledge in the lead.
The Panthers gave one final push at the end. Jones ran the kick to the 32-yard line. Crossan threw two incomplete passes but completed a first down pass to Stewart. Massey ran for another first down, but shortly after, Crossan threw an interception with one minute left on the clock. The Trojans kneed the ball until the clock ran out. The final score was 24-17 John Milledge with the victory.
It was a strong season to remember for the seniors on the field playing Friday night. Despite not making it to the state championship, they had a dominating season and defeated competitive teams from all over Georgia.
Frederica Academy beat Heritage Academy on the same night. The teams playing in the 2018 State Championship at Mercer University will be Frederica Academy and John Milledge Academy.