Panthers earn home playoff game with 29-14 win over Natchez to wrap regular season

Published 11:04 am Friday, November 3, 2023

What a difference 371 days make.

Just over a year ago, Natchez High tossed the ball all over the yard in a win on King Field that spoiled 2022 homecoming for the Brookhaven High Panthers.

On Thursday in the 2023 regular season finale, Ole Brook played with a fire and focus from the opening kickoff and held Natchez scoreless in the second half of a 29-14 win for the Panthers (6-4).

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The victory was the fourth in a row for Brookhaven High and gave the Panthers second place in Region 3-5A. Coach Tucker Peavey and his team will open the MHSAA 5A playoffs on Nov. 10 when they host Vancleave High (4-6).

To earn that home game, the Panthers had to beat the Bulldogs (5-6) on Thursday, which was also senior recognition night for the Brookhaven High program.

Those senior leaders have been a big part of the Panthers bouncing back from a 1-9 season in 2022. The loss to Natchez that came 371 days ago was the final one for BHS last year. The next week the Panthers beat South Jones in the season finale.

The offseason program started immediately as Peavey and his staff knew they’d need to have some talented underclassmen grow up in a hurry to improve the depth needed in 5A football.

“We really put in the work, even before the summer started,” said senior running back and Mississippi State commit Xavier Gayten. “We just all locked in on making sure this season would end up being as good we could make it.”

Gayten was sitting on the bench with an iced down ankle and a towel over his head 371 days ago.

He had rushed for 373 yards and done so in just three quarters of action that night. A lower leg injury had put him on the bench with his foot propped up when the clock hit zero of 48-34 win for NHS last year. The entire Natchez team came over to acknowledge Gayten during the handshake line on that night.

It was three straight runs by Gayten to start the game on Thursday that got BHS on the scoreboard. On the opening possession for the Panthers, he powered over a Natchez defender at the goal line to end a 44-yard run to put his team ahead 7-0. Gayten finished the game with 131 yards on 20 carries.

Natchez hit a long pass on its next possession and then scored on the second play of the second quarter via a Derrick Hawkins rushing touchdown that made the score 7-6.

BHS immediately responded and got down to the Natchez 1-yard line but faced a 3rd-and-goal when the Bulldog defense began to stiffen.

After a timeout, BHS took the field with Gayten lined up at quarterback. He took the snap and powered through a big hole in his line. The Bryce Smith PAT kick put the Panthers up 14-6.

Natchez kept its offense in high gear to tie the before halftime. Junior running back Carl McDonald Jr. absorbed contact and kept his feet to score on a 35-yard touchdown that had the Natchez sideline in a celebratory mood.

The Bulldogs then converted the 2-point conversion to tie the game at 14-14, which is where things stood at the halftime break.

Natchez junior quarterback Kaden Walton is an exciting player with the ball in his hands. Walton scrambles when he feels pressure and throws some of his best balls while on the run.

Walton threw for a season high 351 yards in that Natchez win 371 days ago.

On Thursday, Walton was harried, chased, and sacked by a Brookhaven High defense that has improved every week.

The BHS defensive line is a unit that has established an identity as the season has progressed. Senior Eric Williams and junior Christian Jones play defensive tackle and are both stocky, quicker guys that can stay low and work through an interior block.

Junior Devontavious Drummond plays on one side of the line as an end and is a player that’s made a big impact on the defense as of late.

Another player that’s had a huge hand in the BHS win streak is junior defensive end Gaylon Gayten.

Wearing no. 99, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Gayton has been known primarily as a tight end to this point of his career. The younger brother of Xavier Gayten, Gaylon looks like a guy who’s found his calling at defensive end.

Gayten swallowed up Walton for a sack on the first Natchez drive of the game and he did it again on the final Bulldog possession of the night. The way that Gayten got off the ball on Thursday had the Natchez tackles doing their best to slow him down without drawing a holding penalty, of which many were called.

Gayten finished with 10 tackles and was in on four sacks. Jones, Drummond, and Williams were also credited with a sack each.

Senior Kenan Quinn was huge in setting the edge on the outside for the Panthers from his defensive back position in order to prevent Walton from breaking containment. Quinn has become one of the best tacklers on the team this season and led the Panthers with 12 stops in the win.

One of those aforementioned younger players that the BHS coaching staff had hoped to develop this season is sophomore running back Caiden Quarles.

Quarles showed what he’s capable of by ripping off an 83-yard touchdown with just under three minutes remaining in the third quarter to put BHS up 21-14. Quarles finished the night with 103 yards on three rushes.

Senior Nathan Lewis scored the final Panther touchdown with three seconds left in the third quarter on a 20-yard touchdown run.

Lewis is most important to the Panthers as a defensive back as his leadership role only increased once standout senior linebacker Jimmy Johns Jr. was lost for the season due to injury in the opener against Lawrence County.

Some of the biggest hits of the night were dished out by Lewis as he and the rest of the BHS defense swarmed to the ball in the second half. Walton still got a few big gains, including a long completion that came on a ball that had been batted by the Panther defense, but Natchez was shutout of the endzone.

There might not have been a player on the BHS defense that wanted to face Natchez more and have a chance at earning some revenge than Lewis.

“This is one that I’ve really been looking forward to,” said Lewis. “I can remember how much they threw it last year. We want to make a run in the 5A playoffs and getting to host a game next week is going to be huge for us doing that.”

Lewis finished with a sack on defense as did freshman Derwin Fields and sophomore EJ Ratliff.

Another of those younger players that have been a key to developing for BHS is sophomore quarterback Dreamus Harron. Harron and the Panther passing game are improving from week to week as he continues to sharpen up after missing time at the start of the season with an injury.

Harron hit senior tight end Bryce Smith on three different plays for first downs on Thursday. Harron finished the game 6-of-10 passing for 36 yards.

Smith was on the sideline walking with crutches on his surgically repaired knee 371 days ago when Natchez and Brookhaven High last met.

He finished Thursday with 38 yards on three catches while also handling the punting and kicking duties.

“Watching the game last year from the sideline last season was tough,” said Smith. “With us having senior night and needing to beat Natchez to host a playoff game, you could feel the tension before the game.”

Finishing ahead of BHS in the region standings is Florence High (7-3). Florence will host Wayne County (3-7) in the first round of the playoffs. Natchez, the no. 3 seed, will play at Gautier (6-4) next week. Laurel (5-6) won Region 4-5A as they lost to Wayne County two weeks ago but beat Gautier on Thursday. Laurel will host either Provine (5-5) or North Pike (3-7) next week.

“Our defense shut them out in the second half and Caiden gave us a spark on that long run,” said Peavey in his postgame radio interview. “And Nate goes in there and does what we need him to do to get another touchdown. It was a good team effort tonight.”

The winner of the BHS and Vancleave matchup next week will face the winner of Laurel and whoever they play in the second round. Win that second-round game and you’re playing in the 5A South State Championship.

A potential playoff push a year after finishing 1-9, that’s where 371 days of hard work will get you.

“We feel like 5A is wide open,” said Lewis. “We still got work to do, we still got to be better, but we want to make something happen in the playoffs.”