ALBANY --- Friday night's lights are a sight to behold throughout the season, but when the temperature begins to drop, high school football truly becomes something special. Underdogs make their own history. Unknown reserves step into the spotlight. Seniors fight their hearts out, knowing that these may be their last snaps with their high school teammates.
For the Westover Patriots, that inspired senior performance came from fullback Shannon Saunders. Saunders carried the home team to a 27-7 win in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs.
“I’m extremely pleased with the guys,” Westover coach Octavia Jones said. “We got down early, but we didn’t hit the panic button. We just kept on fighting and things started falling into place for us.”
Saunders put the nail in the Panthers’ coffin with a 39-yard score with just under eight minutes left in the game, an exclamation point at the end of a 13-carry, 167-yard, and two-touchdown effort.
“Shannon’s our workhorse,” Jones said. “We try to just feed him the ball and let him do what he’s capable of doing. He had to play a dual role for us tonight, he started at linebacker too. He did an exceptional job on both sides of the ball.”
The Panthers were led by consensus five-star senior linebacker and Under Armour All-American Raekwon McMillan. Fortunately for the home team, the Panthers didn’t bring much else from Hinesville. McMillan scored the only points for the visitors all night, when he stepped in front of a Ta’Keevian Harris pass and returning it 15 yards to put the Panthers on the board 7-0 early on their second defensive series of the game.
“McMillan is a heck of a player,” Jones said. “We’ve been telling our guys all week that he puts his pads on just like we do, and we’ve got a five-star too, they’ve got to contend with ours. Trent made some big plays for us tonight. I’m proud of him.”
The Patriots boasted a stout defense, complete with a five-star recruit of their own in Dynamite Dozen junior defensive tackle Trent Thompson.
Liberty came into the game allowing 15.7 points per game, with two shutouts on the season. Westover only averages 18.6 points per game, but over the span of the last three games, they’ve scored no less than 24 points.
“The offense hasn’t been shooting themselves in the foot. Nobody’s really stopped us all year. We only punted two or three times tonight. We just get down in the red zone and sometimes we don’t execute like we should. Tonight, we were able to do that, and we were successful because of it.”
After the pick-six by McMillan, the Patriots gained their momentum back on the ensuing drive, marching down the field from their own twelve-yard line before senior kicker Tanner Stumpe booted a 37 yard field goal to cut the Panther lead to four.
After forcing a punt on the next Liberty County possession, the Patriots took the lead, thanks to a 67-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard connection between Ta’Keevian Harris and senior receiver Jaquir Shingles. After Stumpe added another field goal with under a minute left in the half, the Patriots took a 13-7 lead into the locker rooms.
While both teams pride themselves on their defenses, Patriots senior fullback Shannon Saunders was dead-set on putting the team on his back. Saunders ran the ball eight times for 100 yards in the first half alone. Ta’Keevian Harris added nine carries for 77 yards.
On the very next play after Harris threw an interception to Xavier Tunstall midway through the third quarter, Patriots senior defensive back Kendrick Hurley recovered a fumble at the Liberty County 19 yard line. A few plays later, Saunders was rewarded for his workhorse efforts with a four-yard plunge to give the Patriots a 20-7 lead with 4:45 left in the third quarter. The Patriots wouldn’t look back from that point on.
“Every week we have to turn it up times ten,” said Jones of the upcoming week of practice. “We’ve got to do that next week, keep executing our base offense and defense, and we should be fine.”
Thompson wreaked havoc in the trenches all night, coming out with a modest four tackles, three for loss, and a forced fumble. Junior defensive back Jysanti Richardson added two tackles and an interception. McMillan finished with four tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack to go along with his interception return.
The Patriots moved on to face Stockbridge next weekend.