ORLANDO - The night cap for day one of the second weekend in the football finals pitted the Dwyer Panthers (15-0) against the Niceville Eagles (13-2). Both teams were seeking their second shot at glory with a possible second state title.
By the end of the night the Panthers outlasted the Eagles to win 55-39.
Panther head coach Jack Daniels said, “The scoreboard doesn’t reflect this game. It was a dog fight the whole night. I’m not only proud of the kids but the coaches for making the needed adjustments to come out on top.”
At the start of the game, both teams had their mind set on running the plays they knew and to execute them in all phases. The unfortunate thing was that neither team’s defense was stout. Niceville opened driving a short field and capitalized on an Ashton Hooker one yard run touchdown. The drive and score came over six plays.
But not to be out done, Dwyer took the field and stayed focused. Taking 11 plays and nearly five minutes off the clock, the Panthers’ Daniel Parr, junior quarterback, found speedster Ezra Saffold streaking for the lone Dwyer touchdown in the first quarter.
After the score, Niceville’s Tayjon Culley carried his team down the field for another score. He went in from a yard out to close the first quarter and give the Eagles a 14-7 lead heading into the second quarter.
After the flip of the field, it was the same scene — just a different quarter. Both teams would go on to score on alternating possessions. Minus a missed extra point a two point conversion for Dwyer, they trailed the Niceville Eagles by two at halftime, 21 to 19.
After the half, the Dwyer offense opened the same way they closed. With yet another drive deep into Niceville territory, they turned the ball over. But luckily the defense of Dwyer stepped up. Shawann Lurry jumped and intercepted a Hooker pass and returned it for a touchdown.
Immediately after the turnover, the Eagle offense took back to the air. Hooker, while surveying the field, found Aaron Willis running the sideline for a catch. Willis split two defenders and broke a tackle to score for Niceville with a little over eight minutes left in the third quarter.
After the Willis score, the Panthers went on to score on a Johnnie Dixon reception of 13 yards for a touchdown. And to close the quarter, Gerald Hearns scored on a controversial dive into end zone. After losing the ball going over the line to gain, officials determined he held on to the ball long enough to score.
At the close of the third quarter, it was 41-27 in Dwyer’s favor.
But automatically upon the start of the last stanza, the Niceville Eagles dialed a play-action pass that netted them a 69 yard touchdown, Hooker to Tyre McCants. Following the score by Niceville, Dwyer orchestrated a drive over half of the field to score. The scoring drive was aided by multiple penalties and a long pass from Parr.
After the score with Niceville behind the eight-ball, they took the allotted four downs and failed to gain the yardage, turning the ball over on downs. Dwyer’s Alonzo Smith took advantage of the short field and in one play ran 53 yards to score another Panther touchdown. Smith finished the night with 219 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns.
After closing the game committing a myriad of personal fouls the Dwyer defense gave up a late touchdown with 37 seconds left. Culley went in from one yard for his third touchdown of the night.
A key to the second half surge of Panther scoring was their defense. After only forcing one turnover in the first half, they forced four. All were interceptions were thrown by Hooker.
“This certainly isn’t how I wanted to go out. I know I could of played better but I didn’t. I put my team in some bad spots and we suffered,” said Hooker, starting quarterback for the Niceville Eagles.
It had been five years since Dwyer last tasted championship glory; well that feeling was erased tonight as the Dwyer Panthers claimed the 2013 7A championship.