This has been a unique season at Starr’s Mill, where the football players would rather hang around and talk among themselves about the next game rather discussing plans about an upcoming hunting trip.
“It’s all they talk about,” coach Chad Phillips said. “They love being around each other. They don’t want to leave practice. I have to run them off. I tell them, ‘My wife wants to see me some, too.’”
They bought themselves another week of togetherness last week with a stunning 25-24 win over No. 8 Dutchtown. It was the second straight playoff win over a ranked team – the Panthers beat No. 6 Kell in the second round – and their third victory over a ranked team this season.
Starr’s Mill is now 10-3 and playing in the semifinals for the first time since 2010, when Phillips took over the program from Mike Earwood. They’ve done it with the same old-school approach that keeps kids close to practice -- and keeps the football close to the ground. Unlike many other high schools that have been lured by the siren song of the spread offense, Starr’s Mill remains resolutely an option-based team.
“We’re still an old-school, triple-option that plays keep-away,” Phillips said. “We get a first down and see if we can get another one.”
It worked against Griffin, a showdown that determined the Region 3 championship, when the Panthers kept the ball the entire third quarter. Teams have had trouble getting the offense off the field. It helps that quarterback Hunter Lawson knows how to run the attack and is faster than he looks and that tailback Kalen Sims is fully healthy and runs tougher than most 5-foot-9 backs.
It also helps that the offensive line – and the defensive line – has gotten a lot better and is playing with a lot of confidence. It started when Sims, who suffered a foot injury in the playoffs a year ago, began to feel fully healthy in the loss to Sandy Creek. He’s had eight 100-yard games since then, including 195 yards against Griffin.
The quest to reach the state championship game doesn’t get any easier this week. The Panthers are on the road against No. 2-ranked Warner Robins (12-1), which dominated Clarke Central in the quarterfinal round.
“I thought they were the best team in our bracket,” Phillips said. “They’ve got some players. They’re very fast on defense and they have two running backs that we’re going to have a hard time getting to the ground. Those two running backs (Jahlen Rutherford and James Smith) run angry and it’s going to take more than one guy to take them down.”
The two teams have met only once, that coming in 2000 when Starr’s Mill came away with a 21-7 upset over the No. 1-ranked Demons in the second round of the playoffs.
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