The Nease Panthers fought back and earned a redemption district win on the road against the rival Ponte Vedra Sharks, 24-23 on Oct. 27.
Special teams proved a vital part of the showdown, with several long kickoff returns, fake punts and clutch kicks.
None were more crucial than an extra point buried by Daniel Jones that gave the Panthers a 24-23 lead following a Bryce Frick touchdown run with 1:24 remaining in the contest.
The run was one of a couple timely gains on the drive by Frick, who looked calm and in control down the stretch.
However, the Sharks, who had led for much of the second half, were not going to go down without a fight and marched down the field themselves and got in position to try a 30-yard field goal, but the kick sailed wide as time expired, and the Panther players and students stormed onto the field to celebrate.
The Sharks went out in front after starting quarterback Ben Burk threw a perfect ball over the outstretched arms of two defenders to fellow senior Cole Madson who outran the secondary to the endzone to give them the lead, but the extra point was blocked, and they only went up 23-17 at the time, which proved to be the difference in the game at the end.
No one knows more about special teams and the vital role it can play more than Jones, who one year earlier missed a kick and had one blocked, so for him it was a sense of redemption to finish the job this time.
The Panthers jumped out to an early lead thanks to a kickoff return by Brayden Felder that setup the Panthers past midfield on their opening drive, which Frick capped off with a touchdown pass to Maddox Spencer.
It was the defense for the Sharks that wound up setting the tone and providing the first answer, as Ethan Ash picked off a pass at the Panthers’ 27-yard line.
It did not take long for the Sharks to take advantage of the short field as they leaned on the ground game and the hard-nosed running of Brian Case, who punched it in from a yard out to tie the game at 7-all at the end of the first quarter. He had a pair of touchdown runs in the game.
After a field goal by Evan Redmond gave the Sharks a 10-7 lead, it was the Panthers that had the last say before halftime as Felder beat a safety off the line of scrimmage and Frick threw a great touch pass to find him for a score.
What made the play even more amazing was that it came on fourth down from the Sharks’ 30-yard line.
The play was just one of many plays Felder made on the night for the Panthers, as it proved to be a real breakout game for the young sophomore, and it could not have come on a bigger stage.
Both teams held their own defensively and were popping the pads with some thunderous hits throughout the game.
Ridge Richardson of Ponte Vedra intercepted a pass at the goal line and Nease’s Noah Hodge recovered a fumble in the red zone, both turnovers halted potential scoring drives.
The Panthers had a new defensive coordinator coming out of the bye week, and they put forth a memorable effort in the first game following the coaching change.
With the win, Nease’s path to a district title becomes much clearer, as they improved to 2-0 in district play and can secure a championship with a win over Tocoi Creek at home next Friday.
The Sharks are still in the hunt, because a Nease loss to the Toros would lead to a three-way tie for the top spot in the district 4-4S standings.