LEESBURG — Singing the fight song in the end zone after the game was a little more emotional than usual.
A handful of players shed a few tears.
On a cold night at Trojan Field in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPNU, Saint Frances Academy scored 23 unanswered points in the second half and routed Lee County 43-14 Saturday night in the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series.
The private Baltimore school that many Maryland high school teams refused to play got all they could handle from a gritty Lee County team in the first half. The Panthers had outscored their nine previous opponents by a combined 434-18.
They took control after a Lee County fumble early in the third quarter, then scored a few moments later to take a 12-point lead and the Trojans never recovered.
“That team with the exception of the IMG Academy (in Florida) may be the best team in the country,” Lee County head coach Dean Fabrizio said. “We knew we were going to have to play a perfect game to have a shot. Our kids hung in there for a half, and we had a chance to take the lead in the third quarter, but that turnover hurt us. Then they broke a big play on us after that.”
The nationally ranked Panthers may have reminded fans of the Richland Giants portrayed in the Christian film, “Facing the Giants,” which was produced by the Kendrick Brothers (Alex and Stephen) and Sherwood Pictures in 2006. In the movie, the underdog Shiloh Christian Academy Eagles defeated the talented and much-deeper Richland Giants. That game in the movie, ironically, was filmed at Trojan Field.
But Saturday night, the underdog Trojans didn’t win. And they yielded to the much-more physical Panthers in the second half.
After Jammie Robinson returned the second-half kickoff 79 yards to the St. Francis 20-yard line, Lee County turned the ball over at Panther 13 three plays later.
Moments later after the Trojans’ defense stifled the Panthers on consecutive plays, Blake Corum found a hole, slipped through and outran the secondary 87 yards for a touchdown. The Panthers failed on the 2-point conversion attempt but led 26-14 at the 9:34 mark of the third quarter.
Lee County was never the same.
“We had time and we should have executed,” wide receiver Jeremiah Engram said. “But we didn’t.”
St. Francis added another touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 33-14, then put the exclamation point on the victory with a field goal midway through the final quarter.
Playing from behind was something the Trojans hadn’t seen much of in 2018. Only once — at Northside-Warner Robins in mid-October — did Lee County trail at halftime. But they responded with 21 second-half points to win 24-7.
Most games this season were played under a mandatory running clock in the final quarter due the team building big first-half leads, then they rested their starters in the second half.
That wasn’t the case against St. Francis as Lee County never led.
“You want to win every game,” linebacker Noa Cruz said. “We made more mistakes than we needed too, but I still feel like every player on this team left it all out here on this field.”
St. Frances scored on its opening possession as Corum dashed 51 yards for a score at the 10:44 mark of the first quarter.
But Lee County battled to tie the game when quarterback Kyle Toole hit Chauncey Magwood on a 4-yard touchdown pass. Austin Beaver’s extra point made it 7-7 with 3:00 left.
St. Francis’ physical defense forced a turnover to give the Panthers the lead back at 14-7. A big hit caused a fumble, and Osman Savage scooped and rambled 40 yards into the end zone.
Lee County, however, managed to answer with an impressive scoring drive that culminated with Shaundarious Kimbrough going airborne and leaping into the end zone on a 1-yard plunge after taking a direct snap. The score tied the game at 14 with 9:41 left in the first half.
But St. Francis regained the lead on a 13-yard touchdown pass and even though they missed the extra point attempt after a penalty, they led 20-14 at halftime.
“One thing I told the kids is that you can’t be afraid to play great competition,” Fabrizio said. “We got beaten by a better team tonight. But what we learned I feel like will help us moving forward and into next year.”
Lee County was held to a season-low 227 yards of total offense. Toole was 25 of 40 passing for 212 yards and a touchdown. Magwood finished with seven catches for 46 yards, while Engram caught seven passes for 64 yards.
St. Francis took away Lee County’s ability to run the ball and held the Trojans to just 15 yards on the ground. Kimbrough finished with 27 yards to lead the ground attack.
Most Lee players said they weren’t going to let Saturday night’s loss dampen what they accomplished this year, which included the first 15-0 season in school history and back-to-back Georgia High School Association Class 6A state championships.
“We got what we wanted, which is a ring on our fingers,” defensive lineman Deangelo Griffin said. “Going back-to-back and playing with a bunch of guys I felt I never would have gotten to play with in my life, that was just amazing.”