Four interceptions and some untimely penalties by Liberty County helped the Effingham County Rebels to a 35-7 win Friday at Donell Woods Stadium in the high-school football regular-season opener.
It was apparent that something was amiss on the Panthers’ sideline minutes prior to the start. All-around athlete Richard LeCounte, junior linebacker Jeremiah Gilbert and starting quarterback Walker Franklin were not dressed to play.
Two of the absences were injury related. Gilbert had to sit out due to a concussion, while LeCounte tweaked his shoulder during a massive tackle in last week’s scrimmage and had not yet received medical clearance.
In Franklin’s case, Panther coach Kirk Warner received late news that led to the senior transfer from Wayne County sitting out Friday.
“We got some news from the state regarding his eligibility and, hopefully, we can work out those kinks next week,” Warner said. “We decided to err on the side of caution and not play him tonight. It’s a paperwork issue and, hopefully, we will have it done by next week.”
However, the last-minute notification meant the Panthers had to start sophomore backup Jaalon Frazier at quarterback. Warner admitted Frazier had not been given enough reps during practice lately.
“I’m not going to hang Jaalon out … he played well, especially on such short notice,” Warner said. “We found out the news about Walker at 11 a.m. (Friday). We’ve been working (Frazier) a little bit at quarterback, but I can promise you both will be ready in time for next week, just in case.”
On Liberty’s first drive, Frazier moved the offense with some solid fakes, which gave JaMarcus Latson, Jacquez Williams and Jarquel Richardson the opportunity to bust open for positive gains. He also completed a pass to Gyri Durant to move the chains.
But on fourth-and-inches, the Panthers were penalized for delay of game. They decided to go for it, but the Rebels stuffed them at the line of scrimmage and took over on downs.
On Effingham’s first drive, Panther Michael Guy nearly intercepted Rebel quarterback Phillip Brown, but the visiting team avoided the turnover and settled for a punt.
Later, Frazier threw an interception that the Rebels seemed to return for a touchdown, but Effingham was called for an illegal block on the return.
The Rebels still capitalized on the turnover with a 15-yard rush and dive into the end zone on the next play.
On the ensuing kickoff, Panther Tracy White made a 35-yard return.
Liberty moved downfield, thanks to Richardson and Williams.
Frazier took a low snap and broke through the middle for a first down, but got hit on the next play and fumbled to the Rebels.
Later, on an outside screen, Brown found an open receiver, who took the ball in for another touchdown and a 14-0 Effingham lead.
The home team got what seemed to be its first break of the night when Williams ran to the outside, beat a tackle and sprinted for 75 yards for a touchdown.
But the Rebels answered with a touchdown on their next drive to go up, 21-7.
Afterward, the Panthers’ luck just ran out. Back-to-back interceptions led to back-to-back touchdowns for the Rebels and sealed their win.
Warner told his guys they were the better team.
“Tonight, we got hit with Murphy’s Law … we have to chalk it up and move on,” he said. “We have to make plays … we had a couple of penalties that extended their drive … but those are things we can correct … I don’t think for five series they can march 80 yards on our defense. We gave them some help. We played hard, but we didn’t play mistake-free football.”
Joaquin Lemapu, Brandon Course, Jacari Roberts and Tucker Lyda had sacks for Liberty County.
With regular kick-returner LeCounte on the sidelines, sophomore Eddie Baker stepped in and averaged at least 15 yards per return.
Next Friday, the Panthers play Bradwell Institute at Olvey Field as the Tigers open their regular season under first-year head coach Greg Hill.
FPCA drops first game to Bulloch Academy
First Presbyterian Christian Academy officially launched its third season of football Friday night with a 48-6 loss to Bulloch Academy in Statesboro. The Highlanders are on the road again next Friday when they play Briarwood Academy in Warrenton.