Sterlington 28, Richwood 21
RICHWOOD — Sterlington's detractors were quick to point out that the move into District 2-3A was not going to be easy. They were right to an extent. It wasn't always easy, but in the end, the Panthers made a clean sweep through conference play.
Austin Dupree rushed for 252 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Chandler Moncrief's interception set up the go-ahead touchdown as the Panthers rallied in the second half for a 28-21 victory over Richwood in what turned into the District 2-3A championship game.
"It was tough sledding, but we got it done," Sterlington coach Lee Doty said. "Being 10-0 and district champions isn't the end all, but it's really exciting for our kids, our school and our program."
In a see saw-saw game, Sterlington jumped out to a 14-0 lead, Richwood stormed back with 21 unanswered points and the opportunistic Panthers capitalized on a pair of turnovers to clinch the district crown.
Hidari Ceasar's 81-yard touchdown reception from Joseph Smith and Deione Reed's 2-point run gave the Rams their first lead, 21-14, with 6:30 to play in the third quarter.
Sterlington went three plays and out on its next possession, but the Rams started from their own 3 after mishandling Brooks Rushworth's punt.
The momentum was about to swing in the Panthers' favor.
Tanner Coley recovered a fumbled first down snap at the 2-yardline, and Malik Davis punched it across on the very next play. Landon Green's extra point squared the game at 21 at 4:37 in the third period.
Richwood (7-3, 4-1) then drove from its own 28 to the Sterlington 21 before turning the ball over on downs.
Sterlington's next series ended with a punt.
Three plays into the Rams' ensuring series, Moncrief made a game-turning play. Reading a screen pass, the defensive tackle returned the interception nine yards to the Richwood 12.
"He didn't score, but Chandler's interception was the dagger," Doty said.
On third-and-nine from the 11, Davis Johnson made a leaping catch at the goal line on a pass from Carson Clowers and fell into the end zone for the pivotal touchdown with 8:54 remaining.
Both teams punted on their next series, with Clowers pinning the Rams at their own 1 with 3:22 to play.
With all three timeouts remaining, Richwood opted to punt after picking up a first down on what would be its final series.
Taking over at its own 38, the Panthers were able to run the final 1:55 off the clock.
Sterlington took charge after a scoreless first quarter.
Dupree's 1-yard run capped a 13-play, 93-yard drive to open the scoring with 8:44 left in the half.
Sterlington would score quickly on its next sequence as Dupree raced 68 yards for his second touchdown.
Richwood countered with a 58-yard TD pass to Geor'quarius Spivey to close within 14-7 with 5:44 left before intermission.
Reed blocked Green's 29-yard field goal to keep the Rams within a single possession.
Four plays later, Zion Stokes hauled in a 41-yard TD reception with just 22 seconds on the clock. Chase Carter blocked the extra point to preserve the Panthers' 14-13 halftime lead.
Keeping the pressure on, Richwood went up 21-14 on Ceaser's 81-yard TD grab.
Doty concerns about the Rams' vertical passing game proved to be legitimate. Ceasar has verbally committed to TCU while Spivey has pledged to Mississippi State.
"They hit us with some big plays," Doty said. "They are tremendously talented. They got the ball to those D-1 guys. To be honest, there was nothing we could do about it. They got us in some situations where they out-athleted us and took advantage of us, which was good planning by them. There is a reason those guys are D-1."
Sterlington rolled up the majority of its 316 rushing yards in the first half.
"We really ran the ball well in the first half," Doty said. "We got Dupree going, and the offensive line did a great job. In the second half, they put an extra man in the box and kind of shut us down. We didn't throw the ball probably enough to get them out of that. Basically, they stuffed us in the second half. The defense was able to force some turnovers and get us in good field position.
"Sometimes the defense has to shine, sometimes the offense has to shine. It takes all of us to win these games."
Dawson Snell paced the Panthers defensively with 10 tackles, including four stops for negative yardage. Cole Jones added nine tackles, followed by Carter with seven and Moncrief with six.
While capitalizing on both of its takeaways, Sterlington was turnover-free.
"We had no turnovers and only three penalties for 30 yards," Doty said. "You're going to win a lot of ballgames right there."
Sterlington now awaits the release of the playoff pairings on Sunday.