JACKSON – As Biggersville tied the game with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter, one thought went through Lumberton coach Zach Jones’ head.
“When they got down there and tied it, I thought ‘Oh no. Not again,’” Jones said.
At that moment, it looked as if the Panthers were going to have their third state championship slip away dating back to 2016.
Luckily for Lumberton, the Lions failed to convert the two-point conversion and take the lead.
With 50 seconds left with no timeouts and tied at 14-14, the Panthers drove to Biggersville’s 42-yard line.
It was then quarterback Rodney Parker heaved the ball down the Lions’ sideline to wide receiver K’Nylan Willis for a 42-yard touchdown to give Lumberton the lead.
The touchdown not only secured Lumberton’s 20-14 win over undefeated Biggersville, but it also secured the Panthers’ path of redemption after losing last season’s state title, as well as Jones’ first-ever state title as a coach.
“As crazy as this year has been, I don’t think there is any other fitting way that this one could have ended,” Jones said. “I’ve joked about that all week, but the third time is the charm. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but maybe it will on the ride home.”
Willis notably broke his collarbone earlier in the season and was expected to be finished for the year. Instead, he managed to return for Lumberton’s final two games of the season.
“Oh man, my heart was pounding,” said Willis, who led Lumberton with five catches. “I had to get it to my team. I knew they were coming for me because Rodney threw a signal at me.
“I was really nervous because I didn’t think I was going to come back to my senior season. I’m glad God healed me up and strengthened me up so I could be here to play with my team again and win state.”
It was all Lumberton in the first half as the Panthers dominated both sides of the ball.
Behind running back Robert Henry, the Panthers marched down the field on the opening drive on a 10-play, 59-yard drive. Henry capped the drive off with his first touchdown of the day on a 5-yard run.
Biggersville’s defense began to settle in and managed to force a fumble and a punt. At the same time, Biggersville’s offense could not find any success in the first half against the Panther defense.
In the second quarter, Trevon Jessie came down with an interception on Big gersville’s 25-yard line. Five plays later, Henry ran for a 9-yard touchdown as well as scored on the two-point conversion to give Lumberton a 14-0 lead.
The Lions didn’t convert a first down until late in the second quarter when Goldman Bulter broke out a 35-yard run. However, back-to-back penalties forced Biggersville into a fourth and 48 situation. In the first half, the Lions ran 17 plays of offense and totaled just 42 yards.
In the second half, Biggersville moved Butler to quarterback, which sparked the Lions’ second half comeback.
Butler used both his arm and legs to help the Lions score at the start of the half as he threw a 7-yard touchdown to Dylan Rowsey on fourth and cut the deficit to 14-6.
Lumberton’s defense began to make stop after stop and hoped to ice the game by running the clock out. Lumberton’s offense stalled with just over a minute left in the game. On the ensuing drive, Butler threw a 52-yard pass to give Biggersville first and goal at the Panthers’ two-yard line. Butler then ran the score in two plays later to tie the game.
Jones’ message to his team moments before Willis’ touchdown was simple.
“Make a play,” Jones said. “We have playmakers on the field. Maybe I should have spread it out earlier. It’s stuff we worked on all year, and it’s funny. We are not going to save anything. Everything was on the table.”
Henry ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns, which earned him the game’s MVP honor.
“It’s unbelievable. I never thought we would get back here, but the hard work paid off. We got the gold ball, and that’s all that matters,” Henry said. “I love all these boys, and I love all the coaches.”
Lumberton’s win is the fifth state championship in school history and their first championship since 2010.
“These kids are resilient,” Jones said. “When we left Southern Miss last year, they said they were coming back, and they were going to win it. Even when they got their heads down, they kept saying that they had to keep fighting, and they did.”