E.A. Sports Today

Spring Garden bows out

Panthers gain early lead, but Mars Hill scores 35 straight points to end their run for the second straight year

By Shannon Fagan
Special to East Alabama Sports Today

FLORENCE – Spring Garden football coach Jason Howard said he would put senior receiver Cooper Austin up against anyone in the state.

There’s a reason he has such confidence in Austin.

On just the fifth play of the Panthers’ Class 2A state quarterfinal game against fourth-ranked Mars Hill, Austin hauled in a 53-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Chapel Pope to give them the early lead.

But it didn’t last long.

On Mars Hill’s second offensive play following the touchdown, sophomore running back Jay Dobbs dashed 93 yards for the game-tying score. The extra point gave Mars Hill the lead, and momentum back that it didn’t relinquish in a 42-19 victory.

Mars Hill (10-3) advances to next week’s state semifinals to face Cleveland. Spring Garden’s season ends at 12-1.

Austin had another solid performance for the visiting Panthers. He caught seven passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, a showing that drew praise from some of the Mars Hill faithful as he exited the field.

”Cooper is just an another-level player who’s probably ever come through this program,” Howard said. “I’d put him up against anybody in the state. He’s just a different-level player.”

Austin may be a different-level player, but Mars Hill proved to be a different-level team for the second straight year against Spring Garden. Following Austin’s early touchdown, Mars Hill scored 35 unanswered points to turn the game lopsided. Dobbs had 205 yards on 14 carries with two touchdowns.

”I felt like the long run they had after we scored was a critical one,” Howard said. “We had them backed up, but they made some adjustments. We had a couple of blown coverages here and there, and we just didn’t answer the call.”

Mars Hill quarterback Griffin Hanson extended the lead with a 6-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter and a 19-yard touchdown pass to Carter Heupel with 1:48 left in the half.

In the second half, Dobbs picked up where he left off with 7:11 in the third quarter with a 2-yard touchdown run. Sam Williams caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from Hanson for a 35-6 lead.

Hanson finished the game completing 8-of-11 pass attempts for 107 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Austin got Spring Garden back on the board with 12-yard touchdown run eight seconds into the fourth quarter. Damien Thompson extended Mars Hill’s lead to 42-12 on a 6-yard touchdown run three plays later.

The visiting Panthers didn’t quit. Pope led them on a 7-play, 57-yard drive in which he scored on a 4-yard run. Larry Rogers’ extra point was good, making the score 42-19 with 7:36 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Pope ran for 48 yards on 16 carries with the score. He also completed 13-of-22 pass attempts for 293 yards and a touchdown.

Howard praised all of his seniors for adding to Spring Garden’s recent football success.

”They’re the winningest group to come through,” he said. “We said that about last year’s group, but this year’s group ended up with more (wins) in a four-year period than last year’s group did. They have the winningest record in school history. I’m just proud of them.”

Shannon Fagan is Sports Director at WEIS Radio in Centre.

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