Sterlington 21, Iota 12

IOTA — Sterlington is going back to the 'Dome!

Leading from wire-to-wire, the fourth-ranked Panthers knocked off previously undefeated and No. 1 seed Iota 21-12 on a wet Friday night in the semifinal round.

Sterlington (12-2) will be paired against a second straight District 5-3A foe in the finals as No. 2 seed Eunice (12-2) blanked No. 3 Kaplan 19-0 in the other semifinal. Starting time for the Class 3A state championship game is 7 p.m. Friday in the Mercedes-Benz Louisiana Superdome.

Sterlington's defense set the tone early against Iota (13-0) by forcing the first of three turnovers.

Andrew Ashby returned the opening kickoff 29 yards to the Sterlington 46.

Reece Brooks fell on a fumble on the game's first play from scrimmage to give the Panthers possession at their own 43.

Two carries by Jordan Townsend netted 12 yards and Dallas Reagor carried for 10 yards and another first down at the Bulldogs' 35.

Three plays later, Townsend picked up nine yards on third-and-four, advancing the Panthers to the 20.

Crockett then executed a beautiful fake handoff and darted into the endzone to cap a seven-play, 57-yard drive. Jacob Green's PAT put the Panthers up 7-0 just 2:36 into the ballgame.

Iota went three and out on its next series as Willie Holloway and Cole Jones combined to stop a third-and-one handoff from midfield for a loss of one.

After the two sides traded punts, the Bulldogs began their third series from the minus-27.

Iota went right to work from there as Tre Rambin threw to Micha Renfro for 18 yards to the 45. Luke Doucet then bounced off a tackle at the line of scrimmage and rambled 25 yards to the 31. Another handoff to Doucet resulted in a 10-yard pickup with an additional 10 yards tacked on for a facemask. Tyrone Charlot covered the remaining 11 yards on a jet sweep. A missed extra point attempt left the Panthers with a 7-6 lead with 4:23 to play in the opening frame.

Zach Crain's 14-yard kickoff return enabled the Panthers to begin their next series from the minus-34.

C.J. Colvin's 25-yard burst off of a pitch pushed Sterlington across midfield to the 35.

With the Panthers facing fourth-and-six, Crockett connected with Clay Vaughn for 27 yards and an apparent first down at the 4. However, two flags — for holding and unsportsmanlike conduct — on the pass and another for a false start left the visitors staring at fourth-and-36 from their own 41.

Following Vaughn's 35-yard punt, the Bulldogs took over at the 24.

Aided by a personal foul and Doucet's nine-yard run, Iota marched to the 31, but the drive soon fizzled.

A second down holding penalty and Justin Fuller's stop in the backfield led to third-and-17 from the 38. Reid Handy then made a jumping interception before slipping at the minus-48 on the return.

Lining up behind Trey Rugg, Tyler Hitt, Braden Bruscato, Brock Risinger, Jack Anderson and tight end Hixson Street, the Panthers methodically drove 52 yards on 12 running plays while consuming nearly six minutes off the clock.

Townsend's three-yard, fourth-and-one run on the seventh play of the series moved the sticks to the 22.

On second-and-nine from the 21, Reagor broke free for 12 yards for the longest gain of the possession.

A false start on first down reversed the Panthers to the 14 before Reagor did the honors from five yards out. Jacob Green's extra point brought the score to 14-7 with 2:53 remaining in the half.

Iota drove from its own 19 to the Sterlington 36 in the waning seconds of the half. Fuller's third down sack and Holloway's fourth down interception preserved the Panthers' 14-6 lead at the break.

Layton Rainbolt returned the second half kickoff 19 yards to the 39.

From there, the Panthers embarked on a nine-play, 69-yard drive.

Crockett's nine-yard run on the second play of the half was good for a first down at the Iota 49. With the Panthers facing third-and-seven, Crockett found Street over the middle for 13 yards and another first down at the 33. With Vaughn's second quarter catch erased by a penalty, Crockett technically completed his lone pass of the evening.

Townsend barreled 25 yards three plays later to set up his own 3-yard run as Sterlington's lead swelled to 21-6 with 8:10 left in the third quarter.

Placing the rock in the hands of Doucet, the Bulldogs countered with a 13-play, 66-yard drive. Doucet carried 11 times for 66 yards (the other two plays were incomplete passes), including a one-yard TD plunge. Iota came up empty on the 2-point pass, and the Panthers maintained a 21-12 lead at 3:08 in the third period.

After exchanging punts, Sterlington began its third series with choice field position at its own 49.

With Townsend and Crockett splitting six carries, the Panthers pressed inside the red zone. Crockett was forced to sit out a play when his helmet came off at the end of a five-yard carry to the 10. A false start brought up third-and-six from the 15. In for Crockett, Brody Green kept for six yards and a first down at the 9.

Things wentawry from there for the Panthers as the next two plays resulted in a holding penalty and a turnover.

Taking over at the 21 on the fumble, Iota could only go backwards. Jones blew up a first down pitch for a loss of six. Two incomplete passes later, the Bulldogs punted from the 15.

Starting from their own 45, the Panthers picked up a first down on Townsend's four-yard run before Vaughn's 35-yard punt pinned the Bulldogs deep in their own territory.

Starting from the minus-7, down by 9 and out of timeouts with 4:17 remaining, Iota faced insurmountable odds.

Sterlington, meanwhile, continues to purse its second state championship in three years.

Notes: Sterlington becomes only the second public school to reach the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Prep Classic in three difference classifications. The Panthers were state runner-up in Class 1A in 2002 and in 2003 in Class 2A before winning the 2016 Class 2A state title. Belle Chasse has reached the state finals in 2A, 3A and 4A. ... Eunice will be the third District 5-3A team to play the Panthers in the postseason. Sterlington edged Church Point 57-56 in overtime in the second round before facing Iota in the semis. Two of the junior fullback's four 100-yard rushing games have come in the postseason. He rushed for a career-high 141 yards vs. W.L. Cohen in the first round. ... Townsend was the Panthers' workhorse against Iota, carrying 21 times for 152 yards and a touchdown. ... Doucet rushed 27 times for 175 yards and a score for the Bulldogs. ... Sterlington received stellar play from its secondary. Corners Trey Eddins and Handy and safeties Brooks and Dorian Eddins combined to limit the Bulldogs to six completions on 21 attempts for 50 yards. ... Holloway and Handy both intercepted their second passes of the season. ... Sterlington won the turnover battle vs. Iota (3-1), pushing its season turnover margin to plus-14. ... Jacob Green remained perfect on 42 kicks (36 PATs, 6 field goals).