Defense was the strong point for Panther Creek in its nonconference play, a hard-hitting unit that held opponents to 9.8 points per game in a 3-1 start.
In the Catamounts’ Southwest Wake Athletic 4A Conference opener against Athens Drive on Friday night, special teams got into the act.
Panther Creek forced four turnovers – including a pair of interceptions and a fumble return for a touchdown by junior safety Isaiah Lasater – and ran back a punt for a touchdown. Throw in a couple of field goals by Phillip Stone and the Catamounts were on their way to a 28-14 victory at Athens Drive’s Williams Stadium.
“That’s what has been plaguing our offense all year is turnovers,” Athens Drive coach Chris Martin said. “If we can eliminate those, we’ll be in some games. That has been the story of the season.
“Their defense is good. They created a lot of it.”
Lasater had his two picks in the first half, one of those in the end zone to stop a Jaguars scoring threat. Stone kicked field goals of 30 and 32 yards for a 6-0 Panther Creek lead at halftime.
The Catamounts (4-1, 1-0) started the second half just like they began the game, pushing the Jaguars (1-5, 0-2) back to the 1-yard line after Athens Drive started its first drive at the 10-yard line.
The punt was partially blocked and the Catamounts’ Quran Moon grabbed the ball at the 25 and returned it for a touchdown and a 13-0 Panther Creek lead with 9:58 left in the third quarter.
Athens Drive got into the larceny act, stealing a pair of fumbles on the Catamounts’ next two possessions.
After an 11-yard Catamounts pass completion, Jackson Wetherby of Athens Drive stripped the ball from Panther Creek receiver Justin Smalls to set the Jags up at the Catamounts 19-yard line.
Athens Drive quarterback Otumos Payemanu hit Wetherby for a 19-yard scoring strike on the next play and it was 13-7.
On its next possession, the Catamounts fumbled again, setting Athens Drive up at the Panther Creek 36. On second down, Payemanu found Brock Martin for a 36-yard score. The pass was tipped but Martin still hauled it in and made a couple of defenders miss en route to the TD.
Suddenly, the Jaguars were up 14-13 with 7:30 left in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth period, Lasater again came up with a big play. On a long lateral that was likely intended to be a forward pass, Lasater scooped the ball as everyone else stopped and ran 20 yards into the end zone.
“Before the game, I just told myself I was going to fly around,” Lasater said. “They always tell us in practice that if you don’t hear the whistle to play it through. I did and it ended up being a touchdown.”
That put the Catamounts up for good with 10:12 left in the game.
The final points came on a 30-yard scoring pass from Brendan Magner to Caleb Cross with 6:12 remaining.
“We were up by 13 and the next thing you know were down by a point within a two-minute span,” said Panther Creek coach Sean Crocker. “Our guys did a good job of staying focused and taking back control of the game.”