When it was over, Southern Middle School coach Shawn Hatfield got the celebratory water cooler bath from his players, plenty of hugs and even a few pictures with players.
But he also got two things that were possibly even more special — a rock and chance to play for a conference championship next week.
Southern took both by taking down in-county rival
Nothern Middle, 34-18, Wednesday at Rocket Stadium in the annual Person County clash. Following the game, Northern handed over possession of The Rock, the trophy that the victor takes home after winning the previous five matchups.
Along with the slab of rock with painted logos of each school, the Panthers earned the right to play in the first-ever OPAC Championship Game next week at Phillips. Phillips was the only team to defeat Southern this season.
“It’s awesome to have these guys right here (win against Northern) and get that rock back,” Hatfield said. “The year we started (giving out The Rock) was the last year we had it. We’ve been talking about it all year. We’ve been talking it since that first loss to Phillips and how if we win out, we’re going back to Phillips and taking that game back.”
The Panthers relied on big plays on offense and special teams and a stingy defense to upend their rivals.
Northern more than doubled Southern in offensive plays (42-18), but the Panthers took advantage of the opportunites they had.
Four of Southern’s touchdowns were longer than 70 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown reception by Ben Pettiford on the Panthers’ second drive of the game.
Southern opened the game going with an emwas facing a third-and-34 when Pettiford got behind the Northern secondary and quarterback Collin Hurdle hit him stride 30-yards from the line of scrimmage. Pettiford did the rest, outrunning the Raiders’ defense for the early score.
“Collin’s a great quarterback,” Hatfield said. “We had a hard time pass blocking so we couldn’t (pass as much), but that first pass set the tone and backed them off just a little bit and gave us some space.”
Northern knotted the game, 6-6, after Kiryce Mc- Cain capped off an eightplay, 67-yard march with a two-yard touchdown on a run up the middle.
But the Panthers had an immediate answer.
Daevon Marner took the ensuing kickoff and rumbled down the field untouched for a 73-yard touchdown to give Southern a lead it would never relinquish with six minutes to play in the second quarter.
The Panthers went into the half with a 21-6 lead after another big play, this time a 72-yard scamper off the right side by Jamari Tuck two plays after stopping Northern on fourth down.
Southern scored on two of its three possessions in the second half, both on long runs.
The first came was a 72-yard option keeper by quarterback Carter Stacey that stretched Southern’s lead to 28-6 late in the third quarter.
The next came when Pettiford outran the Raiders’ defense on a reverse for a 47-yard score, one play after McCain’s second touchdown of the game.
“We’ve got the best option in middle school,” Hatfield said. “It’s been amazing to see Carter Stacey and Ben Pettiford’s ability to find space. The line did great up front creating what they needed to create and the option took care of the rest.”
Julian Crawley led the Raiders’ offense, rushing for 155 yards on 22 carries, including an 11-yard touchdown run in the final minute .
The Southern defense forced three turnovers, including two fumble recoveries by linebacker Noah Sullivan.