The Liberty County Panthers (9-1, 5-0) brought home a region championship for the first time in their 24-year history after they beat the Pierce County Bears (7-3, 4-1) 56-46 in a barnburner in Blackshear Friday night.
The teams battled back and forth all night until the fourth quarter, when the Panthers went up by 17 on two different occasions.
The game started hot as the Bears wasted little time getting down the field. Quarterback Stetson Bennett got his team down to the one-yard line after two passes to receivers Walker Reddish and Chase Royer. Running back Shyhiem Clark finished the drive with a plunge into the end zone. The drive took less than three minutes off the clock.
The teams traded possessions on consecutive three-and-outs before the Panthers got on the board. Quarterback Jaalon Frazier found Richard LeCounte from 59 yards out to tie the score at 7-7 midway through the first quarter.
The Bears answered the LeCounte touchdown quickly as Clark found room up the middle and raced 62 yards to the two-yard line. Bennett found running back Lafallen Taylor to make the score 14-7 in a drive that took a minute and change off the clock.
The Panthers were able to sustain the longest drive of the first quarter as they drove into Bears’ territory. They faced a fourth and 12 from the 16 when Frazier hooked up with LeCounte for another touchdown, but the extra point from Alec Sutton was wide right, keeping the score at 14-13 late in the first quarter.
Pierce County showed its offensive prowess again when Bennett found Jay Bethea from 67 yards out, on a bobbling catch up the middle to make the score 21-13 to end the first quarter.
The Pierce defense came up big on the ensuing drive, forcing a punt from the Panthers after a big seven-yard loss on a tackle by middle linebacker Cameron Douberly. However, the Panthers’ defense kept the Bears out of the end zone, and forced a 41-yard field goal by Cooper Saussy, which connected and made the score 24-13.
Coach Kirk Warner and the Panthers did not say die in the first half, however. They started with the ball at the 47 yard line after an onside attempt from the Bears. Frazier found wide receiver Dylan Stewart on a 32-yard pass to the Pierce 22.
Elisha Polite came up big on the next play, getting the ball down to the one-yard line on a 21-yard swing pass. Frazier capped the drive with a one-yard scamper. The two-point conversion made the score 24-21 with about six minutes left in the half.
The Panthers had penalty trouble on the next drive after a facemask penalty negated a big sack for Antonio Golden and a personal foul set up the Bears at the Liberty 35. However, Josh Washington made a big play on third down for the Panthers as he knocked away a pass that would have been a sure first down.
The Bears then went for it on fourth, and the Panther defense held. The offense took advantage of the turnover on downs as Kris Coleman took a screen pass and raced 30 yards to the Pierce County 30.
A personal foul on the Bears put the ball at the 15, setting up the Panthers with great field position with less than two minutes in the half. Liberty faced a fourth and seven at the 12, when Frazier found Coleman for his third touchdown pass.
The Panthers led 29-24 after the extra point. But two minutes was enough for Bennett’s Bears. He led them into Liberty territory and then found a wide-open Bethea for a 41-yard touchdown, making the score 32-29 at the half after the two-point conversion.
The third quarter opened with a bang as Willie Roberts took the kickoff 54 yards to the Pierce six. However, a big tackle for loss on Frazier set up a fourth and goal from the nine.
Frazier’s pass to Coleman fell just a yard short, and that is where the Bears took over. They looked to take advantage of their defense’s stop, but the Panthers came up big again.
Alvin Roberts forced a fumble just two plays into the drive and Tramiel Walthour came up with the ball at the Pierce eight. On the first play of the Panthers’ drive, Frazier found LeCounte from eight yards out to make the score 35-32 after the two-point conversion.
Bennett did not say quit. On the next drive, he found Bethea again for a 36-yard completion to the Liberty 21. The Bears got down to the one-yard line, but the Panthers held strong again.
They forced a field goal attempt by Saussy from 20-yards out. However, Liberty got a huge block and their offense took over at the 20.
Frazier led the biggest drive of the game for the Panthers and found Willie Roberts to the Pierce 45 on a 21-yard pass. He then found Stewart wide-open over the middle. He walked in from 39 yards out to make the score 42-32 at the end of the third.
The Panther defense forced a three-and-out punt on the next drive, highlighted by a third down sack by Golden, LeCounte and Walthour. The offense couldn’t take advantage of that, and Liberty punted back to the Bears.
The Panthers made another big stop on the Bears’ next drive and forced a turnover on downs at their own 26. Alvin Roberts got the deflection on fourth down.
Frazier kept the ball on the first play and raced 42 yards up the middle to the Pierce 32. Two plays later, Coleman found himself in the end zone from 38 yards out, giving the Panthers a 17-point lead at 49-32.
The Panthers never let the Bears get within 10 points again. The traveling Liberty County fans went wild as the clock hit triple zeroes and the Panthers were region champions for the first time ever.
"It feels great, man. It feels great," Warner said. "It’s not about me, it’s about the kids. Other than Richard and few basketball players, I told them all this is first significant championship they have ever won. This is a life-changing experience for some and it is going to provide a lifetime of memories. I can’t be more proud of my kids and the way they fought. They fought, they fought, they fought."
Frazier finished with 320 yards and six touchdowns on the night while rushing for 147 yards and another touchdown. LeCounte caught three passes for 83 yards, all for touchdowns. Coleman had 101 yards on the ground and four receptions for 100 yards and three touchdowns.
"The first half was so stressful for me," Frazier said. "I knew if we kept our composure for the second half, we were going to be ready to turn up. In the second half, we always come out swinging and that’s what I knew my team was going to do. I gotta give all my thanks to my O-linemen blocking for me so I can run the ball, throw the ball. Also, a shoutout to Kris Coleman. He showed out in the second half. Overall a great team win."
The Panthers will now host the Pike County Pirates (6-4, 3-3) from Region 4-AAA on Friday in the first round of the AAA state playoffs at Donnell Woods Stadium in Hinesville.