CHULA — In the center of a postgame huddle Friday night, Tiftarea Academy head coach Ryan Branch could be heard telling his players, "I love you, I'm proud of you."
Those words will probably be used many times over the next few days as the Panthers almost assuredly punched their playoffs ticket on a homecoming night at the Panther Pit with a 35-34 overtime win over the Southland Academy Raiders.
In the same huddle, Branch announced that the game ball was being awarded to Austin Willis. His toe provided the winning margin, moments after Ethan Mims scored on a 3-yard run. He hit all five of his kicks in a game where every point mattered.
Southland had scored first in overtime, a 1-yard run that gave Colt Stephens his fourth touchdown and the team at 34-28 lead. The Raiders, though, would trot out their kicking team for the extra point, a unit that had both of its earlier attempts blocked. The third time would not be the charm as Noah McMinn got his hands on it.
On their overtime possession, Tiftarea was in a 3rd-and-5 situation at the 20 and appeared to be in trouble as quarterback Logan Carswell seemed to be trapped well short of the marker. Somehow, though, he emerged from a pile of players and kept going until he was downed at the 3. Mims tied the game on the next play and Willis came through with the extra point kick.
Though Southland scored first, Tiftarea led for most of the contest. They were up 14-12 at halftime and 21-20 at the end of 3 periods.
Stephens game them 6-0 lead four minutes into the game on a 12-yard run. He had been set up by a big kickoff return by Keyon Stone that landed them at midfield. Special teams would suffer their first mishap when Jack Raines got his hands on Cleve Bass's kick.
Barely two minutes later, the Panthers marched into the endzone in seven plays when Raines was on the receiving end of a 15-yard pass from Bailey Cunningham. Willis gave them a 7-6 lead with the extra point kick.
It was Stephens against at 5:01 in the 2nd. Two plays after Southland converted a 4th down at the 3, he rumbled in from the 2. The kick team came out again and this time it was Wesley O'Quinn on the block.
Raines set up the last score of the half on an interception. On a drive that included three quarterbacks — Cunningham, Kyle Ashley and Logan Carswell — it was Carswell on the score, a 7-yard keeper.
Southland took a 20-14 lead midway through the 3rd after Brian Stone ran for a 40-yard touchdown and Ryan Weaver ran the 2-point conversion, but Tiftarea would strike for two straight scores.
First, it was Raines coming up big again when he took a short pass from Ashley and turned it into a 69-yard score in the 3rd. Then, Mims made it a 28-20 game when he took a 45-yard pass from Ashley with 8:32 remaining.
Momentum would not stay with the hosts.
Only 1:22 later, the Raiders were back in the endzone when Stephens scored on a 35-yard run and a halfback option pass from Blake Shattles to Weaver was good for a 2-point conversion. That knotted the game at 28.
Both sides had opportunities to score before the clock ran out. Southland was stopped at the 40 on two straight incompletions and both Ashley and Carswell were picked off by Weaver in Raider territory.
Raines' name was called often during the game. In addition to the blocked kick, interception and two receiving touchdowns, he caught nine passes for 161 yards and had 10 tackles. Mims added 101 yards receiving to go with his two rushing scores.
Tiftarea's three quarterbacks combined for 22 completions and 348 yards through the air. Cunningham threw for 99 of those and Ashley had 206.
Stephens ran for 138 yards on 29 carries for Southland and Stephen Turton added 69. The Raiders had three interceptions, all by Weaver. They also recovered a fumble and a long onside kick.
Tiftarea's record improved to 6-3 while Southland fell to 3-6.
The Panthers, who close the regular season with Terrell Academy next week, have locked up the No. 4 seed out of Region 3-AAA and will play the No. 1 from Region 2.
"It's great for the players, great for the school," Branch said after the game. "All they wanted was a chance. Now they got it."