Having not been forced to play in the second half all year long, the Saint Jo Panthers got a slight taste of what that’s like Thursday night in Ponder.
Holding a 44-14 lead at halftime over the Avalon Eagles in a six-man man Division I bi-district playoff, the Panthers, which struggled early offensively, got two big defensive plays to seal a 64-14 victory via the mercy rule.
Saint Jo (10-0) led 52-14 after Shaden Clark hit Aaron Sapp for a 19-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, Sapp then made the play of the night on the Eagles next possession.
Avalon quarterback Calyn Davis dropped back to pass and was heavily pressured by Saint Jo’s Devin Dixon who flushed him to the sidelines.
In a panic move, Davis threw the ball forward, but waiting in the wings was Sapp who leaped, cradled the ball with one hand for the interception, marched down the sidelines and hurdled a defender to finish a 32-yard return for a touchdown.
“I’m super proud of him,” Saint Jo coach Chad Tallon said of Sapp. “He made one of the best athletic plays I’ve seen in my years coaching, to make that catch and then hurdle a guy to go on (to score).”
Saint Jo led 58-14 after a blocked PAT, needing just one point to enforce the mercy rule.
The icing on the cake was on the Eagles very next possession.
Davis dropped back to pass again, rolled to his right and fired under pressure. The ball was tipped and landed in the hands of Saint Jo’s William Phillips who broke free of a couple of defenders mid-way through his 64-yard interception return touchdown.
Prior to that game-sealing return, Phillips had dropped two easy interceptions earlier in the night.
“William (got) frustrated because he dropped a couple,” Tallon said. “He had his head down a little bit, but I told him that he got one and made it count. That was a great run.”
Having not played in the second half at all this season, questions about the Panthers conditioning might have been in order, but to coach Tallon, it wasn’t even much cause for concern.
“Even playing half a game of six-man you have to be in good shape,” the Saint Jo coach said. “These guys put the work in during the summer and each day during the season. A lot of our guys run cross country too, so that helps. You worry about that sometimes going in the second half, but our guys weren’t winded at halftime or anything, so we are just ready to get going next week.”
Next week could be a showdown with No. 3 Throckmorton who plays May in a bi-district playoff tonight.
As for the rest of the Panthers win Friday, it all got started for them in the first quarter when Clark scored on a 9-yard run to make it 6-0 after a failed PAT.
Avalon took the lead against Saint Jo, the first against the Panthers all season long, when Denzel Murray scored on a 1-yard run. The Eagles led 8-6 after kicking the PAT.
“Avalon’s a great team,” coach Tallon added. “We knew coming in they were going to be the best team we’ve played all year. I told my guys that we needed to match their adrenaline because this was their first time in the playoffs. We came in with some jitters, but I thought our guys responded well.”
Respond they did as the Panthers scored the next 24 points thanks to an 11-yard touchdown run by Brady Chadick to cap the first quarter scoring.
Luis Solis helped his team tack on two points after blocking one of the few punt attempts in the game at the Eagles’ 2-yard line. The ball then rolled out of the end zone for a safety and a 22-8 Saint Jo lead.
Sapp then scored his first of four touchdowns on the night, this one from three yards out, to stretch the Panthers’ lead to 30-8 after Luke Chaffin kicked the PAT.
The Eagles scored once again though later in the second quarter thanks to a 74-yard touchdown run by Murray to cut the deficit to 30-14 after a made PAT.
Saint Jo scored two more times in the second quarter.
Clark scored both touchdowns before halftime, one from 48 yards out and the other from six yards away.
Saint Jo’s playoff will be next Friday in Springtown.