After winning the Class 2A state title in 2017, the Lanett Panthers fell three wins short of their second straight in 2018. Tonight, the team can make up for last year’s disappointment by earning another trip to the title game.
Lanett (12-0, 6-0) will head toward the Mississippi state line tonight to face Sweet Water (11-1, 6-0) in the Class 1A semifinals. The winner will advance to play either Mars Hill Bible or Pickens County in the title game on Thursday, Dec. 5.
The Panthers were part of history last Friday when they took down Isabella 41-21 in a game held in Valley’s Ram Stadium. Senior quarterback Kristian Story put on a show for the Lanett fans, scoring six touchdowns on a night in which he set two AHSAA state records and helped the Panthers move on to the semis.
Lanett head coach Clifford Story said the team had been working hard all week in the lead-up to the quarterfinals game, and they followed through on their promise with a great performance.
“They were really, really in tune and focused. I had told them all week that they were going to be the biggest team we faced. I told them they punished people and had been very physical,” Clifford said. “They got up for the game. When we walked out there on the field down at Valley, they owned that field. They said it was going to be their field for two-and-a-half hours, and they were true to their word.”
Clifford’s middle son Kristian was the story on Friday’s win, as the Alabama commit threw for 303 passing yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 63 yards and two more scores. Kristian’s performance broke Bo Nix’s records for career total touchdowns and career total yards in the win and now stands with 2,335 passing yards and 26 touchdowns along with 1,036 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns this season.
Kristian’s play has come as no shock to his father, who has watched him develop every step of the way.
“He had that special air to him, and he's a special talent,” Clifford said. “He's shown himself on both sides of the football, and if you really look at it, he really played two games in one night. He doesn't come off the field, and he plays offense and defense. You're averaging 80 or 90 snaps a game on both sides. That just speaks for who he is and how he trains himself to be in this position.”
Clifford said he felt last season’s loss in the quarterfinals has fueled the Panthers to this point. Now, Lanett has to show up ready on the road against one of the classification’s top programs.
Lanett takes on a Sweet Water team that is averaging 42 points per game and is fresh off a 38-35 thriller against Brantley. Clifford lauded the Bulldogs for playing solid football on both sides of the ball and for having running backs Xavier Lucy, Jaylin Dixon and Jaland Lewis-Horton who are all dangerous ball carriers.
Clifford also pointed to quarterback Braiden Broussard, tight end Willie Lewis, linebackers Walker Thompson and Trace Lucker and the entire Sweet Water offensive line as players that could pose a challenge.
Clifford stressed that the Panthers would have to play a complete game in order to advance to the state championship game. He emphasized staying ahead of the chains by avoiding penalties and thoughtless mistakes and added that not getting down during adverse situations would be crucial.
The Panthers found out the hard way last fall that playing in Class 1A was no cakewalk. Kristian and the team’s nine other seniors can end their high school careers in Jordan-Hare Stadium, but they’ll have to find a way to beat the Bulldogs to do it.
“I would be overwhelmed with joy (if we reach the Super 7). We have fought through so much this year just as a team with having a new offensive coordinator in, having to learn each other all over again and for the offensive side of the ball just having confidence in each other. Trust in each other was the key in the first few games,” Clifford said. “All those little things have played a part in it. As I look back and reflect over those things, I think those things are going to make me really emotional.”