Spring Scoring Spree
ST. JOHNS – The Palatka Panthers can still score quickly. They can be scored on quickly, too.
Some of the faces have changed from last fall to this spring under second-year head coach Willie Fells, but many of the problems – and much of the promise – have not changed.
They scored first and last, but host Nease scored more often and moved almost at will in a 48-35 spring classic contest under a full moon Friday night at the Panther Den.
Coming off a 3-7 season in which it surrendered 354 points, Palatka found itself in a 34-21 halftime hole, having given up 355 yards the first two quarters. But the Panthers never let up, showing both quick-strike potential and the ability to drive the ball.
“It’s nothing we can go to the moon about or into the ground about,” Fells said. “We saw some good things and some things we have to get worked out. It starts with me.”
Continuing last season’s stunning transition from basketball to football standout, rising senior receiver Wesley Roberts netted 156 yards on three catches – all for touchdowns, the first one despite pass interference. Faison Sutton fumbled on his first rushing attempt, but recovered to finish with 96 yards on 11 carries with one touchdown while auditioning to replace soon-to-graduate, 1,600-yard rusher Jay’Lyn Session. Demontae Ashley appeared to establish himself as the No. 1 quarterback, completing 3 of 9 passes for 144 yards and running nine times for 50 yards, showing an elusiveness not seen as a spot starter the last two seasons.
“He’s running pretty good. He’s kind of elusive. He kept making things happen with his feet,” said Fells of Ashley. “Faison looked good when he ran the football. He’s got to protect it.”
“Not many people will have an answer for him,” Fells said.
A rare Nease mistake – an airmailed shotgun snap – helped Palatka break on top. It led to a short punt downed at the Nease 45, from which point the Panthers drove to the end zone in six plays, getting a 3-yard touchdown run from Sam Smith at the 7:45 mark of the first quarter. Gabe Herrington kicked the first of his five extra points and it was 7-0.
Nease responded immediately as Kyle Bazler turned a short pass from Eric Marshall into 75 yards and a touchdown that tied the game after Canaan Kimball kicked the first of his six PATs. He also had two field goals on the night.
Faison’s fumble at the Palatka 27 set up Joe Bradshaw’s 6-yard scoring run as Nease went ahead to stay with 5:39 left in the first quarter. The lead grew to 21-7 when Grayson Roberts ran 8 yards with a quarterback keeper with two ticks left in the period.
Using two quarterbacks and spreading the ball among five backs during the three quarters involving the varsity regulars, Nease was able to keep Palatka’s young defense guessing.
“We came into it kind of blindly because of their coaching transition (to Collin Drafts). There were some adjustments we had to make,” Fells said. “They came to play hard and hats off to them.”
Palatka drove 75 yards on 13 plays, boosted by a penalty on the way to its second touchdown, Sutton’s 1-yard run with 7:44 left in the second quarter. When Nease followed with Kimball’s first field goal, the Panthers answered with a 55-yard touchdown pass from Ashley to Roberts, who shed his defender and took off despite interference, cutting the Nease lead to 24-21.
Then Nease turned another short pass into a 75-yard touchdown – Roberts to Peyton White – and got a 32-yard field goal from Kimball for a 34-21 lead with six seconds left in the first half.
Each team scored two touchdowns in the second half, Nease on a 4-yard run by Anthony Fendriest at the 4:54 mark of the third quarter and Bradshaw on an 18-yard dash with 9:56 left in the fourth.
Roberts put on a show before it was over, going 86 yards on an over-the-middle strike from Ashley with 8:37 remaining, and taking a 15-yard pass from backup quarterback Matthew Lands on a fourth-down play with 2:29 to go.