LUMBERTON – When Jonathan Ladner was promoted to head football coach at Lumberton in April, he confronted two unassailable facts.
First, he no longer had Robert Henry, the do-it-all star who capped his four-year career by leading the Panthers to the Class 1A state championship last season. Second, he did, however, have nine starters returning on defense.
And that defense stood strong Friday night as Lumberton held off Mount Olive 12-8 in a critical clash in Region 4-1A at Lumberton Stadium.
The Panthers, ranked third in the state in 1A, remained undefeated in the region at 3-0 (4-2 overall). The Pirates fell to 4-2 and 2-2 after their second straight defeat.
“We struggled on offense tonight, I’ll tell you what, but those Panthers were prowling around on the defensive side of the ball,” said Ladner, who took over when Zach Jones left for Magee. “I couldn’t be more proud of Coach Harry and our defensive unit tonight.”
Lumberton won it with two plays by junior Da’Byron Conerly, one on offense and one on defense.
It was Conerly who found himself wide open over the middle to accept a pass from senior quarterback Rodney Parker, which Conerly turned into a touchdown late in the first half.
And it was Conerly’s scoop-and-score in the third quarter that gave the Panthers their winning points.
“He’s a junior; he’s been a starter since he was a freshman,” said Ladner on Conerly. “He’s led us in tackles the last two years, and I can’t tell you how many big plays he’s made on that side of the ball.”
That helped the Panthers rally after the Pirates took an 8-0 lead midway through the second quarter in what had already been a taut defensive contest.
Lumberton authored what was to be its only sustained drive of the night on the Panthers’ second possession of the game in the first quarter.
Taking over after a fourth-down stop near midfield, the Panthers got an 18-yard run by sophomore Kalyjah Willis to the Mount Olive 20-yard-line, then a 7-yard pickup by senior Shavante Toney got them as close as the 13.
But that drive fizzled with a motion penalty, a holding call and a 7-yard sack on fourth down.
Then, behind the running of senior Quandarius Hubbard, Mount Olive marched from the Pirate 35 inside the Panther 10-yard-line.
Hubbard, who came into the game with more than 700 rushing yards this season, opened the drive with a 26-yard scamper and he converted a fourth-and-7 with a 13-yard pickup.
The Pirates converted another fourth down on a keeper by junior quarterback John Stephens, but came up dry on a third fourth down, when Stephens misfired on a pass attempt.
“Yeah, turnovers and mental mistakes have cost us in both of our losses,” said Mount Olive coach Dante Durr, who team lost last week 14-8 to Taylorsville.
“We turned the ball over for the scoop-and-score and that was the difference in the ball game.”
Indeed, Stephens did not complete a pass in 12 attempts, many of which found him under duress by the Lumberton pass rush. The Panthers also sacked Stephens three times for 14 yards in losses.
Mount Olive’s defense made its presence felt, and the Pirates got the ball back at their own 45 for what would prove to be their only scoring drive of the night.
Sophomore Malachi Mickel got most of the yardage with a 44-yard cross-field run to the Lumberton 16. Two plays later, Hubbard carried it around right end and beat the pursuit to the end zone.
Senior Marcus Baggett pushed over on a PAT run to give Mount Olive the lead with 6:22 to play in the second quarter.
“We felt like we could hold them on the front line,” said Conerly. “When they went strong side, we knew we had the guys who could get in the backfield and make some stops.”
Following an exchange of punts, Lumberton got the ball at the 36 and immediately went backwards. A false start – the Panthers were flagged 13 times for 90 yards – and a 9-yard sack of Parker pushed Lumberton to a third-and-18.
But Parker beat the Pirate pass rush, spotted Conerly in a busted coverage and got the ball there as a defender fell and Conerly did the rest, getting to the sideline and dashing all the way for a 72-yard scoring play.
The power run for the conversion failed, leaving the score 8-6 at halftime.
Parker had a workman-like night’s work. He ran the ball 23 times for a hard-earned 58 yards, he was good on 4 of 6 passes for 81 yards, he punted three times for a an average of 35.7 yards and he was in on defense most of the game at linebacker.
“Everybody knows we don’t have that element where we just give the ball to Robert Henry and let him make plays,” said Parker. “Without him, we’re not as explosive, but we’ve got a lot more backs who can get involved in the offense.”
The play that ultimately won the game for Lumberton came with just under four minutes to play in the third quarter.
On the second play of a Mount Olive possession, Baggett had the ball knocked out of his hands, where it bounced into the waiting arms of Conerly at the 36-yard-line. He caught it in stride and dashed unimpeded to the end zone.
“It was just right there for me,” said Conerly. “Coaches always say, ‘don’t dive on it, pick it up and make a play.’ And that’s what I did. It’s a great feeling. We started off a little slow, but as the game went on we got more confident in our defense.”
The pass attempt for the PAT was batted down at the line of scrimmage, but Lumberton led for the first time 12-8.
And it stayed that way, despite the Panthers not getting anything else done on offense.
Lumberton only managed five first downs in the game and had the ball less than eight minutes of possession time in the second half. Indeed, the Panthers only gained 182 yards on offense.
But Lumberton was up to the task on defense.
“(Defensive coordinator) Anthony Harry and our defense stood up tonight said Ladner. “We had nine starters back on that side of the ball, so we knew that was going to be our backbone. They held us up and held us upright tonight.”
After the scoop-and-score, Mount Olive drove methodically into Lumberton territory on an eight-minute, 28-second drive that appeared to end with Hubbard scoring on a 22-yard touchdown run.
But the touchdown was nullified by a holding penalty, and the drive ended at the Panther 19 with a pair of incomplete passes.
The Pirates gave themselves two more chances, though, by stopping Lumberton on offense.
The Panthers went for a risky fourth down at their own 28 and Parker was stopped for no gain. But Lumberton held on fourth down when Mickel was dropped for a yard loss.
Again, Mount Olive forced a punt and got the ball back at midfield with 52 seconds to play in the game and no time outs.
A pass interference call got the Pirates 15 yards, and Stephens was able to scramble out of bounds after a 10-yard gain to the 25.
However, the Panthers got a sack on second down, and on the final play of the game with one second remaining, Conerly put his final stamp on the game with an interception at the goal line.
Conerly actually weaved his way all the way to the other end zone for a touchdown, but the Panthers were called for a block in the back, nullifying the play.
“I was hoping to get a score out of it,” said Conerly. “But I saw the penalty on us. Hey, as long as I can make plays for my team and help us get the W, I’m fine with it.”
The work doesn’t get any easier for either team next week. Lumberton hosts Taylorsville in a showdown between two of the three remaining undefeated teams in region play, and Mount Olive is at home next week against the third, Bay Springs.
“I just got to tell my guys to keep fighting,” said Durr. “It doesn’t get any easier. We’re in the toughest division in 1A.”