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Wayne Co. escapes Panthers in heart-breaker

      Tomb-like silence filled the Brookhaven locker room Friday night. The Ole Brook Panthers had just lost an emotional, hard-fought 17-15 decision to the Wayne County War Eagles on King Field.

     A 22-yard field goal attempt by BHS senior kicker Noah Allen had sailed just wide of the right upright as time expired. A cold, chilling wind swept across the gridiron but it failed to dampen Wayne County’s victory celebration.

     The victory granted Wayne Co. (8-2, 6-0) the Region 3-5A championship and the right to host a first round state playoff game Nov. 9. By comparison, the exhausted Panthers (4-5, 3-3) remained on the playoff  bubble .

     Coach Tommy Clopton’s Panthers need a victory over visiting South Jones (4-6, 1-5) Friday night, plus some additional help from region rivals.  McComb (7-2, 4-2), a 17-7 loser to West Jones (7-2, 4-2), must beat Pearl (6-4, 4-2) Friday night to help BHS claim the No. 4 seed out of the region. West Jones is at winless Wingfield (0-10, 0-6) and Wayne County hosts Stone County (3-6, 1-5).

     “We are going to need some help,” said a somber Clopton, seated in his office after the game. “I feel for our kids.”

     Turnovers at inopportune times derailed Brook’s dreams of an upset win. Panther quarterback Zach Smith was intercepted twice in the end zone by WC defenders Lonnie Boone and Cadarius Pannell to kill scoring drives. On another occasion, Smith mishandled the snap  from center as the Panthers, trailing 17-15 with 5:02 left to play,  went for a 2-point conversion.

     “Our defense kept us in the game and gave us great field position,” said Clopton. “In the end, when it mattered the most, they stepped up and gave us a chance to win. Our defensive front really stepped it up.”

     An arctic cold front sent gusting winds across King Field and chilled the large crowd. The Eagles took an early lead when sophomore quarterback David Hodo worked a play-action pass to perfection, hitting wide receiver Farekus Walker with a bullet down the middle of the field for a 41-yard touchdown, just 59 seconds into the game.

     Jace Gardner’s PAT gave them a 7-0 advantage. Gardner later hit a 22-yard field goal that put his team up 10-9 at halftime.

     After the opening score, Brook came back strong. WC’s Joseph McLaughlin mishandled a punt reception and Austin Montgomery recovered for the Panthers at the WC 34-yard line. On first down, Smith hooked up with Genoa Sartin for the TD and it was 7- 6.

     The Panthers took a 9-7 lead with 11:54 left in the first half. Allen kicked a 39-yard field goal into a gusting wind. The football hit the cross bar and bounced over.

     On their second possession of the third quarter, the Eagles went 51-yards to paydirt in 7 plays. Hodo hit running back Greg Miller with a short pass and he took it down the sideline for a 17-9 lead.

     Hodo, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound sophomore quarterback, was subbing for injured senior Jarvis Chambers. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 147 yards and 2 TDs.

     With 5:07 left in the game, Panther linebacker Chris Calcote recovered a blocked punt at WC’s 2-yard line. On first down, senior running back Justin Blue crashed over the goal line behind right tackle. That TD closed the gap 17-15.

     WC first-year head coach Todd Mangum huddled with his team  near midfield and congratulated them on clinching the region title. “I told you guys it would be tough to win at Brookhaven. What we have done here tonight should give you confidence in yourselves and your coaches.”

     Mangum said the interception by Pannell on a touchdown pass intended for BHS wide receiver Fred Trevillion with 6:26 left in the game, “was a big play. We overcame adversity  and turnovers tonight.”

     Asked about his thoughts prior to Allen’s unsuccessful field goal attempt, Mangum said, “I was thinking Florida State. I was thinking wide left or wide right or block it.”

     Mangum complimented the Panthers. “Brookhaven has a good team and they have lost to some good teams. I have all the respect in the world for Coach Clopton.”