What a difference a season makes? Almost exactly a year ago to the date (October 17, 2015 to be exact) the Lanett Panthers traveled 12 miles to Bulldog Stadium and beat rival LaFayette High 47-6.
There is a huge difference between the scenarios this year and last, when the Bulldogs were on a six game losing streak on their way to a 10-loss season. On Friday they came into the game-this time on the road-with five wins and a chance to lock up a playoff spot.
To answer the earlier question, a season makes a huge difference. A day before the game Bulldog coach and LaFayette High School Athletic Director James Lucas thought so too, “Friday night is going to have playoff implications, and you don’t want to have to leave our fate in the hands of another team. It’s up to us to take care of business.”
On Friday night at Lanett’s Morgan-Washburn Stadium the Panther’s revealed why they are now 5-0 at home and with their 38-14 victory over rival LaFayette and now in a better position to make a playoff run.
It was the start of homecoming weekend at Lanett High School and the entire home side of the stadium was full. The fact that the Panthers were hosting rival LaFayette brought out hundreds more to fill the away side of the stadium as well. There was little doubt that everyone in attendance knew how important this game was to the postseason for both teams.
For those who may not have followed football-the fans that stood near the fences outside of the stadium or played music and barbequed across the street at the apartments near Lanett High School-the game pitted one town against another and that was enough to get their undivided attention. Most of Chambers County was in attendance for what looked like the game of the year in Class 2A, Region 5 football. However the atmosphere would well outscale the actual game.
The nail in the Bulldog coffin came during the fourth quarter with the Panthers ahead by a score of 22-14. A few minutes earlier Bulldog junior quarterback JaTarvious Whitlow threw a 10 yard pass to fellow junior receiver Zarian Heard to bring LaFayette within eight points followed by the Bulldogs sole successful two-point conversion of the game.
No less than three plays later Lanett junior quarterback (and the head coach’s son) Clifford Story III connected on a 30 yard pass to senior back Tavaris Geiger to put the Panthers on the Bulldog 10 yard line. Time and time again the Panther offense made quick work of the Bulldog defense, quickly scoring and putting out any fires LaFayette might have started to set offensively. Two plays later freshman running back Terrion Truitt would score to make the score 28-14.
The Panthers would connect on four of their five two-point conversion attempts on the evening. Story III and Geiger would connect again with 2:30 remaining in the game to put the Panthers ahead by what would be the final score.
During LaFayette’s three losses this season there has been a consistent theme: costly turnovers. Friday night at Lanett was no different as the Bulldogs fumbled the snap on their second possession of the game not long after the Lord’s Prayer was sang aloud by the fans, coaches and players in attendance. NOTE: For this reporter, that was one of the most moving moments of my decade-long career and gives me goosebumps when I reimagine hundreds of people singing their praises “before we prepare for battle,” according to the announcer.
With 3:34 remaining in the first quarter following an eight play drive the Panthers would score their first touchdown of the game on a three yard run by junior running back Melvaunta Robinson. Lanett would head into their locker room at halftime with a 14-6 lead, a Whitlow 62 yard kick return touchdown the thing keeping LaFayette from a scoreless first half. The junior quarterback went 8-15 through the air for 187 yards while rushing for 80. The three interceptions he threw on the night gave Whitlow nine for season against nine touchdown passes.
Defensively LaFayette played a more schizophrenic style unseen thus far this season. “The defense did an outstanding job during the first half,” said head coach James Lucas. Unfortunately there are two halves in a football game and though senior defenders Walter Dukes (7 tackles), Takeo Higgins (8 tackles), Mathew Cartwright, Shanethesis Williams (2 tackles, one sack) DeVantae King (8 tackles) and Quentin Ray (3 tackles and an interception) played hard it was far from good enough on Friday.
The Bulldogs were given practice off on Monday in advance of Fall Break.
LaFayette will next travel to Valley to play Beulah High School, a Class 3A, Region 3 program on Friday. The Bobcats are currently 1-8 (1-5 Region).