Time to eat! Lumberton set to square up against Nanih Waiya for 1A State Championship

By JESSE JOHNSON,

The Lumberton Panthers will be served one last plate of spaghetti this week in the hopes it serve them one last win – a 1A state.

Each week this season, the Panthers have been fed spaghetti on Wednesdays. So far this meal has been a recipe for success, as the Panthers will play for the 1A State Championship game at M.M. Roberts stadium at 3 p.m. Friday afternoon.

This year’s team has what it takes to bring another state title back to Lumberton.

At the beginning of the season, Coach Zach Jones knew he had something special with this year’s team.

Exactly how special was due to the hard work and progression of some players stepping up.

Henry at QB

At the beginning of the year, the Panthers knew they would have standout Robert Henry in the backfield. Now, 2,884 total yards and 29 touchdowns later, Henry has led his team to a 12-3 season and a chance at redemption from a 2016 state championship loss.

After spending two years in the backfield, Henry made the move to quarterback. Of his 2,884 total yards of offense, 1,094 of those were made with the junior’s arm. Connecting on 50 of 82 attempts and 13 touchdowns, the Panthers have allowed other backs to step in and become a more complete group offensively.

K’Nylan Willis has been the beneficiary of the move with Henry. The 6’2” receiver came into the season with the most experience but has been one of the most improved of the bunch. The most impressive thing about the receiver is the Yards After Catch. Most packages have the wideout getting a 5 to 10-yard pass. It’s what Willis has done with the ball after that that has him as a key piece of this offense. On just 32 receptions, the junior wide receiver has totaled 812 yards. That’s an average of 25 yards per catch. Last week Henry hit Willis on a 7-yard pass when Willis made one plant with his foot and left the defender on the ground, sprinting for  a 60-yard touchdown.

“K’Nylan has led the way in the weight room with his work ethic,” Jones said. “He was the top returning receiver from last year. I tell people all the time his success is a direct result from what he does in practice every day. He works his butt of every day and it has shown all year long.”

Offensive, defensive prowess

With two offensive threats in key positions, the offense has been able to run more efficiently and smoothly. Shevonte Toney and Trevon Jessie have filled the role left by Henry and have amassed 1,350 yards from scrimmage and have added 17 touchdowns in the backfield. Rodney Parker spends some time as quarterback as well and has added 408 yards.

As a total, this Panther team has rushed for 3,886 yards and has 54 touchdown runs this season. 

Probably the most important person on this team is defensive end Xavier Holder. Holder’s sophomore and junior years were cut short with season-ending knee injuries, keeping him sidelined for the better part of the seasons. With hard work and faith, the 6”3’ 215-lb. senior has been on the field for the most part of the season. In last week’s game, the defensive end had three solo sacks and led the energy and intensity on the defensive side of the ball. With his intimidating presence, the big defensive end is one of the most humble and nicest kids on the sideline. Hearing of his progression speaks volumes as he sets a hard work ethic on and off the field.

“I am so blessed and thankful,” Holder said. “At the beginning of the year I didn’t know if I was ever going to play again. Our fans would ask me how we looked and how things were going. I didn’t want to talk much about it because I didn’t know myself how my knee was going to hold up. I stayed in the gym, took things week by week and put all my faith in God. It’s been a long process and I couldn’t be any happier to be in the position we are in right now.”

Jones is proud of the work that Jones has put in to rehabilitate.

“I’m so happy for Xavier and proud of all the adversity this young man has overcome,” Jones said. “As a freshman starting in the state championship game in 2016, we both were expecting big things. His injuries were tough to come back from mentally, as well. Just to see him out there doing what he is doing right now is an enjoyment for all of us.”

The defense is not as big as most but is like a pack of bees when the play is snapped. Using their speed and athleticism has allowed the Panthers to get to the quarterback 23.5 times this year and intercepting the ball on 13 occasions. The Panthers have nine games giving up eight points or less. Freshman Da’Byron Conerly has led the pack with 70 solo tackles and 128 total tackles.

The second go-round

The Lumberton team finds itself in the second state appearance in four years by way of defeating Richton 55-7 in the South State game.

Lumberton jumped out early and never let off the pedal as the Panthers dominated Richton and marked its spot in the state championship game Friday.

Jones is pleased with his team’s performance and is proud of how his team and the community showed up for the South State game.

“Richton has shown they could come back and make any game close,” Jones said. “I was extremely proud of how our guys closed out the game. All the hard work they have put in to get here has made me proud of this group of guys. It’s so important to look around and see this for our town. We are truly blessed to be in this position and I couldn’t be more proud of our family.”

Lumberton’s success will have one final test as Nanih Waiya won the North State Championship narrowing Noxapater 21-20.

Here we are again

The Warriors are no strangers to success as they are the defending 1A state champions. This year will mark the third straight state title appearance for Nanih Waiya. The last time these two schools met was in the 2016 South State championship game as the Panthers won 50-48 in overtime. In 2016, Nanih Waiya was in the southern division before making the move to the north. The Warriors have maintained a No. 1 ranking for the majority of the season, finishing the regular season with that mark.

The Warriors have won 13 straight games after starting the year winless in their first two games. With a dominant rushing attack and a balanced passing game, the Warriors look to avenge the 2016 loss to the Panthers.

Devonte Turner and Austin Sander have been the one-two punch in the backfield for the Warriors. Both backs have totaled 2,101 yards on 247 carries and have 33 total scores. The Warriors are averaging 251 yards rushing per game and have 82 total scores on the year.

Tylan Glass has led the team in receptions with 569 yards and 6 touchdowns. As a whole, the Warriors have 17 total receiving touchdowns so spreading the ball around is something this squad does really well. On paper, the two schools have a handful of offensive weapons, so this should be another high-scoring affair like the last time the two squared up in 2016.

The defense has averaged 55 tackles per game and has sacked the quarterback 5 times. The defensive backs have intercepted the ball 13 times.

Jones knows his team must come out strong from start to finish and leave everything out on the field.

Evenly matched

“This is what we have worked hard for all year,” he said. “They are a really well- coached team. They embody the head coach and they embrace his physical style of football. They have some big guys and some that stand out as speedsters. Austin Sanders is one of the fastest players in the state. Glass is a receiver that we have to target. I think it’s an evenly-matched ball game. They might have some advantages in some areas as we might have some of the same in various areas. It’s all going to boil down to who executes and wants it more. We have worked so hard to get to this point. I feel really good about where we are”

Come early Friday the Panthers will make the journey to M.M. Roberts Stadium via U.S. Hwy. 11. This season the Panthers have not traveled to any game on the interstate and it has worked for them thus far.

“We always go Hwy. 11,” the coach said jokingly. “If our police escort goes the interstate then they will have to travel by themselves. But whatever route we use heading to the game, we will be focused come game time and expect to give our best efforts.”

Kickoff is set for 3pm at M.M. Roberts Stadium Friday, December 6.