Christmas may still be a few months away, but you might never be able to convince Southridge linebacker Naquon Fagan of that.
In a big showdown between District 16-8A powers Southridge and Palmetto and his Spartans team facing what appeared to be certain defeat, Fagan found a gift in the way of a loose ball.
With Southridge trailing 16-14 and Palmetto facing a fourth-and-1 at the Spartan 20 and down to just one timeout with three minutes left, Panthers backup quarterback Vernon Kelson plowed up the middle on a sneak.
But perhaps thanks to Mother Nature playing a cruel joke as a sudden and unexpected downpour two minutes earlier provided for a wet football, Kelson lost control on the ball.
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Fagan had no intentions of just falling on it. He scooped it up, broke outside down the left side, picked up a convoy of blockers and 84 yards later was standing in the end zone mobbed wildly by his teammates.
The first play after the ensuing kickoff, Kelson was sacked, lost the ball and Emmanuel Belgrave turned in a scoop and score again, this one from 15 yards out.
Just like that, the Spartans had themselves a stunning 27-16 “out-of-nowhere” victory over the Panthers on Friday night at Tropical Park.
“I saw the ball come loose out of the pile, picked it up, cut out to the left side and said ‘let’s ride’ and away I went,” Fagan said of his game-winning play. “I got a nice wall of blockers and to the house I went. It’s amazing we won this game. It still feels like a dream right now.”
In what turned out to be a brutally physical game, the Panthers battled their way to a 10-6 halftime lead, despite losing starting running back Ralph Williams when he was knocked out of the game after a hard hit across the middle.
Palmetto wasn’t done losing players as wide receiver Cornelius Nunn got clobbered coming over the middle on a bubble screen midway through the third quarter and had to be tended to by trainers before gingerly walking off the field.
The final blow for Palmetto came when starting quarterback Cairiq Rackley went down hard in his own end zone on a sack late in the third and he was done for the night.
Minutes after that, the Spartans, thanks to a 36-yard hookup from quarterback Jaylin Willis to Jaheim Jerry on third-and-19, took a 14-10 lead on a 3-yard touchdown run by Courtney Reese and two-point conversion with 16 seconds left in the third quarter.
But Palmetto had an answer in the form of defensive back Mike Jackson who took the ensuing kickoff and bolted 94 yards to the end zone putting the Panthers (4-1, 0-1) back on top.
With three offensive starters out including their quarterback, the fourth quarter turned into an offensive struggle for Palmetto but the Panther defense managed to hold the Spartans at bay.
With four minutes left, Palmetto came up with its one big offensive play when Kelson found Kentron Poitier for 40 yards down to the Southridge 29 setting up the eventual four-and-one fumble by Kelson.
“You never apologize for a victory and for sure we were fortunate tonight but we were really sloppy out there and need to get a lot of things fixed,” said Southridge associate head coach Sedrick Irvin, who saw his team improve to 5-1, 2-0. “We need to be so much better on offense and too many penalties. Give it up to our defense, they play with so much heart and really did a great job of keeping us in the game tonight.”