By Gary Robbins
On Friday night the Stone Memorial Panthers kicked off their 2013 season at home against the Livingston Academy Wildcats, with what Coach Mark Wattenbarger has deemed as perhaps the youngest squad he has coached in his 15-plus years of coaching and came away with a 6-5 victory.
As the Panthers took the field, running behind the Harley Davidson, it was obvious the well-manicured field had taken on a lot of rain from earlier in the evening.
Stone who is beginning this season in a new district —District 6AAA, welcomed a great crowd to witness this first contest of the 2013 campaign.
The Panthers won the coin toss and elected to receive in what turned out to be a great decision. After the kickoff, they began the first drive of this season on the 31-yard line. It didn't take long for senior quarterback Brady Wattenbarger to connect on a 55-yard pass play to fellow senior Brian Frye to the Wildcat three. Sophomore Justin Johnson took it in for the first touchdown of the season.
In just 3:45 Stone was on the board, the PAT was no good so the lead was 6-0 in what would be a very important touchdown.
Livingston began their opening drive on their own 47-yard line. Livingston would
move the ball and on fourth and four, they would convert keeping their drive alive. The drive stalled, when on third and seven, a receiver caught a pass in the end zone and was ruled out of bounds, as he was not able to get his foot down.
Senior Eli Sadler would attempt a 35-yard field goal that missed left. The Panthers' next drive ended with a punt from Wattenbarger with 1:47 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats started their second drive, by going to the air, in an indication of things to come.
Livingston drove all the way to Stone's one-yard line, when the Panther defense came
up with the biggest play of the game, as sophomore Anthony Conley recovered a fumble on the three-yard line.
Stone tried to get some room to work, but on second down Wattenbarger was sacked in the end zone for a safety. There was a clock malfunction with time kept on the field until it was repaired at the half.
After the Panthers' free kick, the Wildcats once again had great field position, starting at the Panther 49-yard line. After moving the ball, junior quarterback Caleb Qualls found his go-to receiver junior Wade Eldridge on third and six for a first down. On second down, senior Seth Seiber tackled a Wildcat for a loss to bring up a third and nine. Qualls' pass fell incomplete. Sadler converted a 37-yard goal to make the score 6-5, Panthers.
Stone put together a nice drive, keyed by a 34-yard completion from Wattenbarger to Frye, but on fourth and two, they turned the ball over on downs with a few seconds left in the half.
Livingston received the ball to start the second half and moved the ball, powered by the Qualls to Eldridge connection; however, on third and 13, the Panther defense rose to the occasion, as sophomore defensive back Chandler VanNatter broke up a pass, forcing a punt.
The Panther drive stalled, and after two penalties, they faced a third and 19, when the ball slipped out of Wattenbarger's hand, forcing him to punt, which was downed on the two-yard line.
Qualls went to work, mostly on passes to his tight end Eldridge, but freshman Blake Hicks intercepted a Qualls pass for the Panther defense to thwart another Wildcat drive.
Stone couldn't do much with the ball and punted again to end the third quarter.
As the fourth quarter started, Qualls and Eldridge teamed up for a 40-yard gain, but on third and 10, junior Cole McDaniel sacked Qualls for another big defensive play for the Panthers to bring up fourth and 16.
With 7:30 left in the game, Sadler attempted a 37-yard field goal which was wide right.
After a possession change, Livingston moved the ball, but on fourth and five, Qualls
threw an incomplete pass which gave the ball back to the Panthers with 2:46 left in the contest.
Stone gained some yards to burn some clock before Wattenbarger again boomed another punt of 56 yards.
With no timeouts and 1:13 left on the clock, Livingston tried to get into field goal range. On second and 10, a recurring theme of the night, Stone's defense came up big, recovering a fumble with only 20 ticks left.
All that was needed to secure the victory for the Panthers was Wattenbarger to take a knee in the victory formation, much to the delight of the many fans cheering them on. It has been said, "football is a game of inches," which we know to be true, but it is also a game where players have to make plays and on Friday night Stone made enough plays to gain their first win in their first game of this season.
This Friday Stone will be hosting DeKalb County at Panther Stadium looking to go to 2-0.