The Panthers from Ashland dominated in 2008, the first series when they were in the same classification, but last year it was Leeds handing out a 3-0 overtime loss in regular season and then taking an 11-point victory in the playoffs. The Green Wave went on to win the Class 3A football state title, their second in three years.
Friday night, the Panthers hosted the Green Wave in an emotional, physical contest. When the final horn sounded, Clay County emerged with a hard-fought 14-7 victory. The loss ended the Green Wave’s 17-game winning streak.
Both teams appeared nervous on the first series as the Green Wave defense jumped offsides twice, then the Panthers were hit with an illegal procedure before being forced to punt.
The Panther defense held and forced a punt which put the Clay County offense in business at its own 27.
Quarterback Shawncey Simmons connected with wingback Andrew Robinson for eight yards, then ran for 15 yards. Tailback Lamar Jones picked up four yards inside, then took a pitch from Simmons on an option right. He raced 26 yards to the end zone. Simmons hit the PAT for a 7-0 lead with 4:41 left in the first period.
The teams swapped possessions before the Green Wave came back with a quick touchdown drive in the second period.
Quarterback D’Venta Smith passed to wide receiver Rie Falleta to the Panther 13. Tailback Ladarius Rodgers carried the ball to the two, then finished the job from there, blasting through the Panther line for a 2-yard touchdown run.
Both teams saw other scoring opportunities get away. The Panthers drove deep into Green Wave territory after Devin Gaddis picked off a Leeds pass at his own 48-yard line. The Leeds defense stiffened and forced the Panthers to turn the ball over on downs.
In the second half, the Green Wave also had a good drive that ended with a missed field goal from 38 yards out by Keaton Glass.
Sparked by a pass from Simmons to Robinson to the Leeds 44, Clay County embarked on the winning drive from there. Jones took the ball to the 32. From there, Simmons slipped around left end and raced into the end zone before defenders could catch him. He added the PAT for a 14-7 lead with 5:28 left in the third period.
There were still plenty of fireworks as the defenses took over. The Panthers had what would have been an insurance touchdown taken off the board on an ineligible receiver downfield penalty.
The Green Wave drove deep into Panther territory, and it appeared they would not be stopped, but a fumble gave the ball back to the Panthers with 3:01 left in the game.
On the next play, running back Travis Smith, who ran hard inside all night, picked up several yards but lost the handle. Leeds recovered, and started to work again.
Smith picked up six yards, but Clay County made a tackle in the backfield for a loss. On third down and eight, Falleta’s pass was picked off by defensive back Anthony Wood who returned it into Leeds territory. A personal foul placed the ball 15 yards deeper. The Green Wave was out of timeouts, and coach Kris Herron instructed Simmons to take a knee and run out the clock.
Herron praised Leeds coach Keith Etheredge and his squad and their community and noted this would be the last meeting between the two teams in Horn-White Stadium, as Clay County will merge with Lineville next season.
“If you all keep playing hard, and we keep playing hard, there’s a good chance we’ll be doing this again in the playoffs.” Herron said.
Etheredge said physically, Clay County is the best team they have played since he has been at Leeds.
“We turned the ball over too much and got whipped on the offensive line,” Etheredge said. “We missed blocks and they got after us. I think this will be a good learning experience for us. We need to learn from it and move on.”
Despite the loss, Etheredge said his team played its heart out. He also hopes he gets another shot at Clay County and noted it would probably be in the fourth round of the playoffs with the winner moving on to the title game.
“I really believe we had the big head because we were riding a 17-game winning streak,” Etheredge said. “Maybe this will knock us down a little. If we had to lose, I’m glad we lost early because it gives us a chance to rebound.”
It does not get any easier for the Green Wave, as they invite the Wellborn Panthers to Homer Smiles Stadium Friday. The Panthers are a perfect 3-0 and are averaging 56 points per game.
“You have to be ready week in and week out,” Etheredge said. “Wellborn will be a tough test.”
Ray Stansell is a reporter with the Clay Times Journal. Associate Editor Gary Hanner contributed to this story. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.