Dr. Phillips Football came into the 2016 State Championship riding a nine-game winning streak, knocking out two previously undefeated teams in consecutive weeks to reach the title game, and came within four minutes and 20 seconds of capturing the school's first state title. But it simply wasn't to be. Miami Southridge, armed with arguably the most dangerous collection of Division 1 talent of any public school in the state, rallied for a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to defeat the Panthers, 14-10, in front of a crowd of over 7,200 at Camping World Stadium.
DP (12-3) came into the game fully aware of the Spartans' defensive dominance as Southridge registered seven straight shutouts through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The offensive game plan was to take it right at them, control the clock with the ground game, while simultaneously limiting the devastating pass rush Southridge had unleashed all year. The plan worked. After a scoreless first quarter, DP continued their third offensive drive and methodically moved across midfield to the Southridge 46. Facing third and three from the Southridge 39, the Panthers picked up their third first down of the drive when Marvin Washington's pass to Emare Hogan drew a pass interference penalty at the Southridge 29. Facing fourth and eight at the 27, the Panthers called on Sterling Stockwell and the junior boomed a career-long 44-yard field goal to give DP a 3-0 lead with 10:19 left in the first half.
Southridge went to work quickly on their ensuing possession with a pair of first downs to the 46. That momentum was stifled, though, after an illegal block resulted in a loss of 22 yards back to the Southridge 24. After a third down pass was broken up by Sydney Capers, Southridge punted it away and DP took over at their own 45 with 7:18 left in the half. DJ Charles carried twice for 11 yards into Southridge territory and three plays later, on fourth and two from the 36, Marvin Washington drove through for a three-yard gain and a first down at the 33. A pair of penalties pushed DP back ten yards but on third and 14, Washington fired a bullet to Je'Quan Burton on the right sideline and the junior hauled it in for an 18-yard gain and a first down at the 19. Three plays later on third and seven, Washington hit Davarius Bargnare across the middle and despite a crushing hit, the junior held on to the football for a first down at the Southridge five yard line. Two plays later, Emare Hogan knifed through the line into the end zone for a DP touchdown, capping a 14-play, 55-yard drive that chewed up 6:30 of clock and gave the Panthers a 10-0 lead into the halftime break.
All eyes were on the Southridge offense as the third quarter opened. With a wide receiver corps boasting offers to Florida, Miami and a host of others, it was expected the Spartans would put the ball in their hands to close their unexpected deficit. On their opening drive of the third quarter, Southridge went to the air three consecutive plays but it was once too many. After a 23-yard first down catch and a pass incompletion, sophomore Jaquarri Powell stepped in front of a second down pass at the DP 40 and had a clear path to the end zone if not for a shoestring tackle by the Southridge receiver that saved a touchdown. DP couldn't capitalize on the opportunity, though, but Sterling Stockwell's punt pinned the Spartans deep inside their own territory at the 13. After a 30-yard completion to the DP 45, Southridge ripped off a 17-yard run for a first down at the DP 28. Facing third and six at the 24, Southridge went deep again but senior Albert Gilreath picked off his third pass of the year to give DP possession at their own seven with 4:33 left in the quarter. DP continued to chip away yards offensively with a patient attack. On third and seven from the ten, Washington connected with Caleb Walls again for an eight-yard pass and a first down. After Washington rushed for another first down, DJ Charles ripped through a hole and picked up a 24-yard gain that gave the Panthers a first down at the Southridge 41. Two plays later, Charles broke off a 17-yard gain as time expired in the third quarter. As play resumed for the fourth quarter, DP faced second and three from the Southridge 34. With the ground game wearing Southridge down, the Panthers kept pounding but on the opening play, a mishandled exchange between Washington and Charles resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Southridge at their own 37. That was DP's only offensive mistake of the night, and it proved costly.
Southridge converted on two consecutive third down plays to advance to the DP 27 and on fourth and nine, a 17-yard pass completion gave them a first and goal at the DP nine. The Panther defense tightened up, stopping a one-yard rush and a pair of passes broken up by Dylan Meeks and Robert Porcher forced a fourth and goal from the eight. Southridge's quarterback escaped a furious rush, rolled to his right, and just before he was forced out of bounds, lofted a pass into the end zone that was tipped in the air and pulled down by his receiver for a touchdown to cut the DP lead to 10-6. The extra point attempt was blocked by Tanner Ingle but the momentum clearly shifted over to the Miami sideline. With 8:26 left in the game, DP took over from their own 20 but after a 12-yard run by DJ Charles, the Panthers couldn't do much more and were forced to punt. Sterling Stockwell's 40-yard punt was fielded at the Southridge 30 but Joe Gulla and Bryan Bell combined on a tackle for a loss of nine yards on the return. A Spartan penalty on the return forced them back another ten yards as their drive started at their own 11 with just 5:56 left to play. After Jaquarri Powell and Joe Gulla teamed up for a tackle that resulted in no gain, Southridge completed a short pass to bring up third and eight. From their own 13, Southridge went to the air again but a pass interference penalty on the Panthers gave them a first down at the 28. One later, Southridge went to the same receiver for the third consecutive play and this time they connected for a 72-yard touchdown pass, converted the two-point pass play, and went ahead, 14-10, with 4:20 left in the game.
DP had one final drive left to bring home the title. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the touchdown forced Southridge to kickoff 15 yards back which gave Tanner Ingle room to return the kick 21 yards to the DP 48. Marvin Washington carried twice and picked up first down runs of four and 14 yards, consecutively, to the Southridge 28. After DJ Charles picked up two yards to the 26, Washington ran for two more and his third down pass to Emare Hogan gained another two. Facing fourth down and four from the 22, Washington eluded the rush up the middle, scrambled to his right and tried to hit Je'Quan Burton at the 15 yard line but the pass fell incomplete and the incredible run towards the goal of a State Championship fell as well.
Many things to take from this experience, and all of them are good. To start, the game plan was perfect. DP did what virtually no team had been able to do against Southridge, and that was run the football effectively. Credit the DP offensive line, undersized and underrated all year long, with playing arguably their best game of the year. No prognosticator gave them a chance against the Southridge defensive line but they more than held their own all night long. The DP defense played incredibly well, as expected, as they've done all season long. They created opportunities through turnovers and with the exception of one play, albeit an important one, they were phenomenal and impressed every soul in attendance Saturday night. Southridge is a team that is loaded with talent, they play in the toughest and most-talented football county in the country and they were able to capitalize on the few opportunities presented to them. That's what great teams do...and that's exactly what Dr. Phillips had done all season long to put themselves in the State Championship game. The outcome may be disheartening to the players and coaches but the focus, commitment and loyalty of this team can never be refuted. After losing over a half-dozen players to transfers, including several starters, few people even put the Panthers in contention to be in this position and some questioned foolishly the direction of the program. Despite winning their ninth consecutive District Championship, this team garnered not one single vote from the state media in its Class 8A rankings. But none of that mattered to this team. The only thing that mattered was what they thought of themselves and the faith they had in their coaches. That's what loyalty does...it allows you to focus on what's important through adversity and doubt. Coach Wells said it perfectly at the post-season banquet last spring...if you are not all-in then you are out. The program will always be bigger than the individual. When everyone buys in to that philosophy, you play for championships, not personal acclaim. Congratulations to our unbelievable senior class of 2017 on one of the most memorable seasons in school history and for setting the benchmark for the class of 2018 and beyond. We have no doubt they will carry the torch proudly.
For the complete official statistics from the State Championship game, click here. To view some amazing pictures from the game, courtesy of our good friend, David Jester, please click here.