By Gary Robbins
On the coldest Friday night of the season, the Stone Memorial Panther football team traveled to Sparta to face the White County Warriors in a District 6AAA contest; however, the Warriors posted a 22-7 victory over the Panthers.
On paper, the two teams were evenly matched in this district contest which had playoff implications, as it turned out the weather was not the only thing that was cold.
SMHS was coming off their bye week and was cold as well on the offensive side of the ball. The Panthers struggled, staying in the game until the last few minutes to fall 22-7.
It appears Stone will make the playoffs, but will not be hosting a home game.
"We did some things tonight we haven't been doing. You can't do that against a good football team or you'll get beat. We lost the turnover battle for the first time all year and it cost us. I thought our physical effort was there," said Coach Mark Wattenbarger.
"I thought we played hard all night. We just weren't mentally focused. I am still proud of this team and where we are. A lot of people are frustrated with this loss, but if you had told those same people we would be playing for our seventh win in week nine, they would have thought you were crazy."
From the opening kickoff, mental mistakes were made, as the veteran coach stated. The kickoff was touched and went out of bouds at the two-yard line, putting Stone's offense in the hole, which they were in much of the game.
They moved the ball to get out of the hole, but at midfield quarterback Brady Wattenbarger threw an interception to start a night of costly turnovers.
White County started their first drive at Stone' 28-yard line, where senior Blake Lynn of the Warriors scored on an off tackle run out of the backfield. The PAT was good and Sparta would hold a lead which they wouldn't relinquish the rest of the game.
The Panthers' next posession started at the 25-yard line, but they turned it back over to the Warriors on a fumble to give the hosts great field position.
Stone's defense held the Warriors to a 39-yard field goal on fourth and nine to swell the lead to 10-0 with 3:47 left in the in first quarter.
The Panther offense picked up a first down, but a false start penalty stiffled their drive to force a punt.
Junior Brandon Stedam had a great defensive series, as he recorded two tackles for loses and a fumble recovery on third and 15 to give the ball back to the SMHS offense in good field position.
A pass to Nathaniel Clanton and the running of Justin Johnson gave the Panthers first and 10 at the 11-yard line, but the ball was fumbled on the exchange from center to quarterback, killing the momentum and giving White county the ball back without any points.
Stone's defense was tough, forcing a punt to try to give their team a spark to get back into the game.
SMHS moved the ball, but Wattenbarger was sacked on fourth and five to turn the ball over on downs to the Warriors.
Lynn, who carried the ball much of the evening, made a big run on this series for the Warriors. White County went for it on fourth and one on a quarterback keeper, but Panther Seth Seiber stripped the ball thwarting the Warrior drive to give the Panthers' offense a chance with 2:27 left in the half.
The offense moved the ball, but were unable to get any points on the board, as time expired in the half, with White County ahead 10-0
White County moved the ball to open the second half, but stalled out. The Warrior punt put the Panthers in a hole on their seven-yard line.
Johnson came to life and ran the ball to the 39-yard line. Josh Kerley hauled in a pass at the Warrior 26-yard line, with Clanton carrying the ball to the 15-yard line to set up a potential score for the Panthers.
Penalties for intentional grounding call and a false start were the culprit this time and brought out a third and 40 call, which was unable to be made, forcing a punt to the 20-yard line.
Stone, though not on their game, still competed, and Adam Stine recovered a fumble on a third down play trying to light a fire in the Panther crowd which made the trip to Sparta.
Johnson continued his great sophomore season, as he ran 33-yards for a touchdown. Patrick Robinson's PAT made it 10-7 with 57 seconds left in the third quarter keeping the Panthers in the game.
Lynn was the White County's workhorse on the next possession, as he found a hole and raced 56 yards for a TD; however, the PAT was no good. White County led 16-7.
Stone started the fourth quarter on a third and three. Wattenbarger ran for a nice gain for a first down to keep the drive alive; however, another false start and a dropped pass gave Stone a third and 20.
Not getting a first down, Brady Wattenbarger booted a nice punt putting pressure on the Warriors at their two-yard line.
White County couldn't move the ball and punted back to the Panthers, who moved the ball to the 11-yard line, but couldn't punch into the end zone.
Needing two scores, Coach Wattenbarger opted for a 30-yard field goal which was no good with 2:14 left in the game.
White County added a late score to push the lead to 22-7 for the eventual victory.
Stone (6-3, 2-2) hosts Rhea County (8-1, 4-0) in the regular season finale on senior night at 7. After Friday's action, Rhea County leads the district, followed by Cookeville (3-1, 6-3), White County (3-1, 7-2), SMHS (2-2, 6-3), CCHS (0-4, 1-8) and Warren County (0-4, 1-8). The Cookeville-White County winner will be second-place in the district; however, Cookeville will play in the 6A playoffs. Rhea County, SMHS and White County will play in the 5A playoffs, when they begin Nov. 8.