By Gary Robbins
Friday night was senior night at Panther Stadium, as Stone Memorial hosted District 6AAA's top seeded team, the Rhea County Golden Eagles, as the Panthers came in with a 6-3 record and having accomplished an excellent, exciting season, and facing a tough opponent in Coach Mark Pemberton's squad, who was looking to continue their winning ways.
"We made some early mistakes and got behind, they have a grind it out offense and didn't allow us many snaps. We still had almost 300 yards on offense though. Their running backs kept falling forward and it set up about three fourth and short (yardage) early on. We pushed them back, it's fourth and three or four, and we probably force punts. You can't give a well-coached good team extra opportunities or it becomes a long night. We also had two turnovers that set up scores for them. They are obviously the class of the district and have a tradition and atmosphere that we need to get to. We have done enough to get in the playoffs and look forward to that. About half of the schools in the state can't say that," said SMHS Coach Mark Wattenbarger after his team dropped a 45-16 decision to the Golden Eagles.
Both SMHS and Rhea County are in the Class 5A playoffs this Friday, as the Panthers travel to Ooltewah and the Golden Eagles host Lenoir City. Both games start at 7 p.m. EST.
Rhea County looked really good on paper. When they took the field, it was obvious they had many upperclassmen and were perhaps the biggest team physically Stone had faced all season.
The Golden Eagles received the ball first and took advantage of their mismatch in the trenches.
On their first drive, they ran the Winged T and just made three or four yards at a time. They moved the ball to the one-yard line, where senior quarterback Austin Dotson powered his way into the end zone on a quarterback sneak to cap the five-minute, 65-yard drive.
Stone started from the 20-yard line after the touchback and moved the ball very little, but were helped with a facemask penalty for a first down.
Justin Johnson was the workhorse Friday, carrying the ball almost exclusively.
Senior Brady Wattenbarger punted, which gave Rhea County a short field to work with at the SMHS 49-yard line.
Junior Brandon Stedam rushed through the huge offensive line and sacked the quarterback, but a third and 15 screen pass moved Rhea County to the Stone 29-yard line and continued to drive the ball on runs from three different running backs. On first and goal at the one-yard line, again Dotson got behind his line and drove his way into the end zone. The PAT made the score 14-0 with 1:06 left in the first quarter.
On Stone's second possession, Johnson was the featured back, as he added to his stellar sophomore season.
As the second quarter started, Brady Wattenbarger was intercepted by defensive back David Loden, who took it inside Stone's 20-yard line, but the Golden Eagles were guilty of a block in the back, moving the ball to the SMHS 47-yard line.
The Panther defense stiffened and forced a 39-yard field goal
from senior kicker Wyatt Maerki to make the score 17-0 with 7:11 left in the first half.
Stone started at the 16-yard line after excellent kick off coverage by the Golden Eagle special teams. The Panther offense moved the ball inside the Rhea County 40-yard line. A fourth and three faced the Panthers, and Wattenbarger was hit on a read option play, giving the ball back to the visitors on the turnover.
Time was running down in the half, but the Golden Eagles and Stone both had time to score, as wide receiver Noel Patterson of the Golden Eagles took a bubble screen into a touchdown with 47 seconds left in the half.
Stone used the clock to move the ball quickly from the 35-yard line, with the key play coming from Wattenbarger to senior Brian Frye for a big gain. Senior Patrick Robinson, who also has had a part in some close wins this year, nailed the 27-yard field goal with one second on the clock to make the score 23-3 at the half.
Stone seemed to gain a little momentum at the half as they received the ball to start the second half.
Johnson broke through the line for a big run, only to have the ball stripped, with Rhea County recovering at Stone's 25-yard line.
On the first snap, senior Demitrius Patterson took the handoff and found a hole in the defense to score a TD. The snap was botched on the PAT, but the holder recovered and raced into the end zone for the two-point conversion for a 31-3 lead, which squelched any hopes the Panthers may had for the upset.
Stone, as has been true all season, battled and played to the end. Wattenbarger and Frye teamed up once again for a nice throw and catch of 54 yards and a touchdown. The PAT was good to slice the lead to 31-10 with 7:38 left in the third quarter.
After an exchange of punts, Rhea County scored on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 38-10 lead.
After the Golden Eagles scored for a 45-10 lead, senior Nathaniel Clanton was featured on the final possession of the evening, as he powered his way into the end zone with five seconds left in the game to make the score 45-16. The PAT was no good.
Twelve seniors for the Panthers played their final home game, and were the most successful senior class in Stone's history to date, winning six games and having their first winning season.
Seniors Brian Frye, Shadoe Smith, Adam Stine, Brady Wattenbarger, Patrick Robinson, Seth Seiber, Blake Hassler, Josh Kerley, Jonathon Goldberg, Nathaniel Clanton, Samuel England and Nick Bohannon set the example for the under classmen and helped to move the football program at Stone Memorial to a higher level.