Cameron Rivera

Sterlington center Cameron Rivera (52) celebrates Dallas Reagor's touchdown late in the first half of Thursday night's Class 3A second round playoff game against Kaplan. (Photo by Mildred Lucius)

Football practice will be part of the Sterlington Panthers’ Thanksgiving Day plans for the fourth consecutive year.

In a game that featured five lead changes, Sterlington spotted Kaplan 12 points early before turning it on down the stretch for a 35-24 Class 3A second round playoff victory.

No. 7 Church Point visits No. 23 Jennings on Friday night, with the winner advancing to play No. 2 Sterlington in the quarterfinals. 

Things did not start out favorably for the Panthers (11-0) against No. 15 Kaplan (7-5) on Thursday night.

Starting from the 16 after mishandling the opening kickoff, the Panthers   advanced to the 36 on three straight running plays. The drive went sour from there. A holding penalty and a forced fumble by Gabe Broussard for a 14-yard loss pushed the Panthers all the way back to their own 4 for third-and-42.

Kaplan started its first series from the Sterlington 49 after Parker Coley’s 38-yard punt.

From there, the Pirates put together a 14-play drive, which consumed 7:34 off the clock.

Seven plays into the series, the Pirates faced fourth-and-two from the 25. Drake LeJeune carried for two yards on what appeared to be a generous spot. After a lengthy discussion on the measurement, the first down was awarded.

Quarterback Mason Frick eventually capped the drive on a one-yard sneak to put Kaplan in front 6-0 with 15 seconds to play in the first quarter.

Sterlington began its second possession with promising field position at the plus-47, courtesy of a 28-yard kickoff return by Cole Jones.

Jordan Townsend carried for 13 yards and a first down, but disaster struck the Panthers on the first play of the second quarter.

Austen Hebert knocked the ball loose in the backfield, and teammate Nathan Sistrunk dashed 66 yards for the scoop and score.

Hebert’s second down sack led to a three and out on the Panthers’ next series.

“I keep telling our kids that bad things are going to happen in a football game. I wish bad things would stop happening this early in the game, so I could get a break,” Sterlington coach Lee Doty sighed.

Coley’s 46-yard punt backed the Pirates up to the 15.

Five plays and a first down later, Doty and the Panthers got their break. An overthrown third down pass went off the hands of a receiver, and into the gloves of free safety Dorian Eddins.

Taking over at the Kaplan 31, the Panthers unleashed their power running game. Townsend carried for nine yards and escorted Reagor on an 11-yard run down the right sideline to set up first-and-goal from the 11. Running violently, Townsend bowled his way for nine and two yards to get the Panthers on the board. Jacob Green’s extra point trimmed the deficit to 12-7.

Sterlington had found its footing.

“We did not play very good or execute very good starting out,” Sterlington strong tackle Braden Bruscato said. “When you are struggling offensively, and the defense makes a play, it changes your mindset. We got our stuff together after Dorian’s pick, and started rolling.”

Kaplan began its next series from its own 26. Drake LeJeune’s 11-yard run converted a third-and-nine, but a personal foul defused the possession.

Sterlington set up at the minus-39 after the punt just under three minutes before halftime.

Layton Rainbolt eluded a tackler near the line of scrimmage and meandered 26 yards to start the drive on a positive note.

Hayes Crockett then found Ram Foster twice for 17 yards before connecting with Rainbolt for 14 yards and a first down at the 7.

“We installed a lot of pass plays, but it turned into one of those games where we had to be more physical,” Bruscato said. “I thought Hayes played well tonight. When we needed a throw, Hayes made a throw.”

Townsend followed Bruscato to paydirt on the following snap to seal a six-play, 39-yard drive in one minute, 49 seconds.

“Any time we call a fullback dive, you can always count on Jordan to run the ball hard and hit the hole hard,” Bruscato said.

Crockett’s 2-point run brought the score to 15-12 with 1:08 to play in the half.

“To be down 12-0, and go up 15-12 at the half was huge for us, especially with them getting the ball to start the second half.” Doty said. “We knew they would make some adjustments at halftime.”

The early portion of the third quarter resembled a video game.

LeJeune’s 53-yard burst on the third play from scrimmage set up Frick’s eight-yard sneak as Kaplan retook the lead, 18-15.

Sterlington needed just four plays to answer.

Spinning away from a tackler just shy of the first down marker on a third-and-six pass from the minus-46, Rainbolt gained 38 yards before being bumped out of bounds at the 16. Reagor’s touchdown run to the right side on the next snap made it 22-18, Panthers.

“I thought our passing game worked really well tonight,” Doty said. “I thought maybe we abandoned it a little early in the second half. We have to get the ball to Rainbolt more.”

Continuing the frantic pace, Kaplan reclaimed the lead just three plays later.

LeJeune covered 71 yards on a sweep around the left edge, and Frick punched it in from the 1 to put the Pirates back in front, 24-22.

Kaplan’s final lead would last all of 10 seconds.

Bobbling the kickoff on the bounce, Rainbolt found the handle and raced 67 yards down the right side of the field to put the Panthers up 28-24 with 7:41 to go in the third quarter.

“What can you say about Rainbolt? That kickoff return was huge,” Doty said.

Back on offense, Kaplan set up at its own 8 when LeJeune stepped out of bounds while attempting to field Green’s perfectly-placed kickoff.

LeJeune’s 22-yard run and a pair of 15-yard infractions against the Panthers helped the Pirates advance to the 18, but the drive stalled after a holding penalty.

Taking over on downs at the 23, the Panthers covered 77 yards on seven plays.

Townsend’s amazing 53-yard run — a mixture of power and speed — went for a first down at the 1, and Crockett (Hayes not Jason) finished it off to put the Panthers in command 35-24 with 9:38 to play.

“I hate to say this, but we knew if we could get up two scores, we had them,” Doty said. “We had a couple of more chances in the fourth quarter to make them surrender, and didn’t get it done. We have to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Eddins’ second interception on a splendid over-the-shoulder catch, followed by a 24-yard return, put the Panthers back in business at the 24.

Reagor’s 19-yard touchdown run was negated by a holding flag, and the Panthers eventually punted.

Moments later, Sterlington had another touchdown wiped off the books when the Panthers were called for two infractions on Harrison Womack’s 64-yard pick-6.

Retaining possession at the 12, the Panthers were able to run the final six minutes off the clock.

A week after escaping the first round with a 37-36 overtime victory over Crowley, the Panthers were all business throughout the week.

“I was so proud of the way our kids came back and had a great week of practice this week,” Doty said. “Our coaches did a an outstanding job of getting the kids ready to play.”

Good Move

Moved from offensive to defensive tackle Wednesday afternoon, sophomore Payton Parks-Smith saw extensive action Thursday night. Teaming with Caleb Andrews and Edmun Williams in the interior, Parks-Smith proved to be the additional run-stuffer the Panthers needed against Kaplan’s Wing-T.

“I had no idea I would get as many snaps as I did,” said Parks-Smith, who played on every other series. “I didn’t really understand the position at first, but I got more comfortable as the game went on.”

Parks-Smith’s main responsibility was to keep the linebackers clean.

“My job was to cut the guard, so our linebackers — Colin (Foy), Cole (Jones), Cliff (Jones) and Seth (Temple) — could come up and make plays,” Parks-Smith explained.

Parks-Smith said Eddins’ first interception, which helped the Panthers draw within 12-7, was the turning point.

“We were able to get our mindset right and just chill out after that,” Parks-Smith said.

Thanksgiving Pancakes

Pancakes with the Panthers is set for Thursday at 9 a.m. in the school cafeteria.

MSAIS Champs

Coach Boyd Cole’s Riverfield Raiders defeated Tri-County (Miss.) 29-21 Thursday in the MSAIS Class 4A championship game.

Cole spent nearly two decades at Sterlington as offensive line coach. Doubling as head softball coach, he guided the Lady Panthers to the 2003 state championship.

Lucas Crockett, the brother of Hayes Crockett, coaches wide receivers and the secondary for the Raiders.

Notes: Townsend (13 carries, 123 yards) and Reagor (18-108) both went over the 100-yard mark. … LeJeune carried 16 times for 154 yards for the Pirates. … Frick carried three times for three touchdowns and 10 yards. … The loss snapped a five-game winning streak for the Pirates. … Game officials were from the Alexandria association. … Originally scheduled for Friday, the schools mutually agreed to play the game a day earlier due to the threat of severe weather.

______________________________________________________________

By the Numbers

KHS ………………......….……. SHS

14 …….. First downs ….........…. 15

49-344 .. Rushes-yards .... 38-227

8 ……… Passing yards …........... 95

8-3-1 … Passes (A-C-I) ….... 9-6-0

1-31 …. Punts-avg. ……....… 3-32.3

2-0 …… Fumbles-lost ……........ 3-1

6-56 …. Penalties-yards ….. 13-114

SCORING SUMMARY

Kaplan …..…… 6 ..6 . 12  0—24

Sterlington …. 0  15  13  7—35

FIRST QUARTER

K—Mason Frick 1-run (run failed), 0:15

SECOND QUARTER

K—Nathan Sistrunk 66-fumble return (pass failed), 11:54

S—Jordan Townsend 2-run (Jacob Green kick), 6:33

S—Townsend 7-run (Hayes Crockett run), 1:08

THIRD QUARTER

K—Frick 8-run (run failed), 10:09

S—Dallas Reagor 26-run (Green kick), 9:00

K—Frick 1-run (run failed), 7:51

S—Layton Rainbolt 67-kickoff return (run failed), 7:41

FOURTH QUARTER

S—Crockett 1-run (Green kick), 9:38

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

RUSHING—Kaplan: Drake LeJeune 16-154, Hayes Abshire 4-83, Sistrunk 18-82. Sterlington: Townsend 13-123-2, Reagor 18-108-1. 

PASSING (A-C-I-Yds-TD)—Kaplan: Frick 8-3-1-3-0. Sterlington: Crockett 9-6-0-95-0.

RECEIVING—Kaplan: Andre Gaspard 1-3. Sterlington: Rainbolt 3-80, Ram Foster 3-15.

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