Liberty County High School football coach Kirk Warner said he waited 12 long years for this moment.
Warner was presented the recently reinstated Commissioner’s Cup trophy Friday night after his football team held off a third-quarter run by the Bradwell Tigers en route to a 35-17 win in front of a full house at Donell Woods Stadium in the season openers for both teams.
The trophy is given to the winner of the annual game between the city’s two public schools. Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette presented the trophy to Warner.
“This means a lot to me,” Warner said. “I’ve been here 12 years and I’ve been on the wrong side of this thing too many times … but none of my current players have ever experienced a loss to Bradwell and that is a good thing … they don’t know or remember those things, but as a coach I remember being on the other side.”
The first Panther touchdown came in the first quarter. Quarterback Jordan Waters handed the ball to Raekwon McMillan, who found a seam and ran about 60 yards before being tackled shy of the goal line. Waters then handed the ball to Jacquez Williams, who scampered in for a 3-yard touchdown run.
The Panther defense stuffed the Tigers’ first offensive drive, forcing a Robert Miller punt. Panther freshman Richard LeCounte took the kick, sprinted downfield and was brought down near the goal line. However, a block in the back placed the Panthers back toward mid-field.
Two plays later, Waters connected with Williams for a 24-yard touchdown reception. Joaquin Lemapu missed the extra point attempt, but Liberty had a 13-0 lead.
Near the end of the first quarter, Bradwell faced third and long when Tiger quarterback LeBaron Anthony faked the hand off and ran the ball 54 yards before being hit out of bounds. The Panther defense held, forcing a field goal by Miller.
In the second quarter, LeCounte ran for 15 yards on fourth and short. Trentice Williams then carried the ball to the Bradwell 2, and Waters went in for a touchdown one play later. The Panthers converted for two en route to a 21-3 halftime lead. Bradwell came out of the locker room for the second half looking like a new football team. The offense came together to open the third quarter. Starting at their own 21, the Tigers marched downfield. Panther penalties and a fourth-down conversion kept the drive going, and Anthony finished with a touchdown to make the score 21-10.
“We talked in the locker room about what was inside each one of them,” new Bradwell head coach Adam Carter said. “I made a point about the game being all about their heart right now. Everybody thought we were going to lie down and most thought they were done. The kids came out and they busted their butts.”
The Panther defense showed signs of fatigue during the third quarter, and the Tigers capitalized. The Tigers methodically pushed downfield and, on first-and-goal from the Liberty 8, Hubert Anderson stepped in as the quarterback, took the snap and ran straight untouched in for the touchdown. The Tigers were knocking on the door, trailing 21-17. However, the Tigers were kept off the scoreboard the rest of the way.
“We were tired and we were cramping up, but I looked into their eyes and there was no quit,” Warner said. “Our season actually got started when we lost to South Effingham last year … all the sprints that they ran … all the weights that they lifted … I told them at some point their chest is going to be burning and they would have to dig down deep, and that is what we did in the third quarter.”
Turnovers hurt the Tigers late in the game.
In the fourth quarter, the Tiger defense pushed the Panthers back to face fourth-and-24. Lemapu came out to punt, but it was short and bounced out of bounds near mid-field. However, the Tigers coughed up the ball, which was recovered by the Panthers. Shortly after, Trentice Williams made a 15-yard touchdown run.
Another fumble killed the Tigers’ next drive, and the Panthers ate up the clock. The Tiger offense took the field with 30 seconds left on their own 23. Anthony was picked off by LeCounte, who returned the ball to the Bradwell 6. McMillan caught a touchdown pass moments later.
“If we don’t have a couple of key mistakes in the second half, I think the outcome of this game would be different,” Carter said. “We did some good things and had coachable moments, and the players never quit on me and that is part of the battle.”
For the Panthers, Trentice Williams rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries, McMillan had 100 yards on seven carries, and LeCounte had 119 all-purpose yards. Waters was 6-of-12 for 60 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
For the Tigers, Anthony was 11-of-17 passing for 73 yards and also rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown. As a team, the Tigers rushed for 141 yards and were 4-of-10 in fourth down conversions.
Defensive stats for both teams were not available by press time.