AMORY – The Itawamba AHS Indians came into Friday's division opener at Longenecker Field as the favorites, winners of the two of the last three 1-4A titles. The Amory Panthers had the plans of playing the spoiler.
Amory (3-4, 1-0) stunned Itawamba with a double-overtime, 28-21 division opening win, overcoming a 14-0 halftime deficit.
“No question this is the biggest win since I've been here. They were picked to finish first in this division, and we were picked to finish fourth,” Amory coach Ben Ashley said. “They have 19 starters back. We knew though with what we had coming back and the type of kids we have, their character and work ethic, that if we were just healthy at this point, we would have a shot.”
T.J. Fields played one of several roles of the hero, scoring the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion to send the contest into overtime and then both scores in those periods.
“We've been waiting on a game like this and a run like this all year,” Fields said. “The coaches have been telling us to keep going and keep fighting. We haven't played any bad teams this year, but this is a big division win, and we're ready to keep rolling.”
Itawamba (5-2, 0-1) got things rolling early, with quarterback Vijay Miller breaking loose for a 34-yard run to set up Hunter White's six-yard score on the Indians' first possession of the game. The score was also set up by the Indians faking a punt on fourth-and-9 and getting the first down.
The Panthers got a stop on the next drive, but the Indians quickly added to the lead as the second quarter opened when Ha'kee Rainey broke loose for a 74-yard TD run.
Amory's best shot to cut into the lead in the first half happened when they faked a punt of their own and Drake Wallace found Jalen Holland for a 23-yard gain and a first down, but Caleb Shelly's field goal into the wind right before halftime hooked just wide right.
Amory made it a one-score game when they got the ball to open the third quarter. Fields returned the kickoff to the Panthers' 48-yard line, and Austin Carter ate up much of the groundwork on the short drive, eventually breaking loose for a 25-yard scoring run but missing the two-point conversion.
The momentum continued to turn in the Panthers' favor. First Itawamba missed a field goal, then Marcus Glenn picked off Miller for the IAHS quarterback's first interception of the season, giving the Panthers the ball at their own 42-yard line.
This set up Fields' 5-yard touchdown and he barreled into the endzone for the two-point conversion as well to tie the game at 14-all.
“We've been holding this wildcat package for about two weeks and really working on it in practice,” Fields said. “We finally brought it out this week, and it worked well for us.”
Misfortune threatened on the ensuing kickoff as Rainey broke a few tackles and appeared to be headed for the endzone before Shelly brought him down just shy of midfield.
“It was a great play by Caleb. As a kicker, you don't expect to have to make those plays, but he got it done for us,” Ashley said.
Shelly said he expected the kickoff to go into the endzone, but the wind wreaked havoc.
“When I kicked the ball off into the wind, we got a strong wind tonight, and that ball without those conditions would have been in the endzone. We planned on that happening,” Shelly said. “Our kickoff team has been really good this year, and I saw the guy coming, shifted off, didn't try to make a kill shot and made the tackle. T.J. Fields was right there to assist on that one. We knew it was going to get returned, and everyone was on their toes for sure.”
Once again, the Amory defense came up big. After allowing the only first down of the drive, James Allen Bennett sacked Miller for a ten-yard loss before the signal caller threw two incomplete passes to halt the drive.
On the first overtime possession, Fields scored from six yards out with Shelly adding the extra point.
Itawamba answered with White's six-yard run of his own to force a second overtime, in which Fields added the winning score from two yards out with another PAT from Shelly.
Tamarcus Hardy played another one of the hero roles, picking off Miller in the endzone during the Indians' possession of the second overtime to seal the win.
“I just did what my coach told me to do. We've just been eating on defense this year,” Hardy said.
Fields had 30 yards on 11 carries with his three scores. Carter was the leading rusher with 122 yards, followed by quarterback J.J. Jernighan's 48 yards.
“This time last year, T.J. had 500 yards offense and then only 120 in the division because he was beat up and banged up,” Ashley said. “Our plan was to get to this point with him 100 percent healthy and ready to go. You're going to see a lot more of T.J.”
Ashley complimented both players who came up with the interceptions, the first thrown by Miller in seven games to open the season.
“Marcus Glenn hasn't caught a pick all year, and he made a big play, got the stop and we went down and scored to tie the game,” Ashley said. “Then Tamarcus Hardy is in the right place, and he coaxed that quarterback into making that throw.”
It's the second win in a row in which the Panthers' defense has shut out its opponent in the second half.
“My hat is off to (defensive coordinator) Ryan Summers and Coty Cox. We feel like we have good ideas we can bounce off each other,” Ashley said. “That's two weeks in a row at home that our guys have pitched a shutout in the second half. It's because Coach Summers has a plan and knows what he's doing.”
Amory's attention turns to its road division contest with Pontotoc this week, which coupled with the Warriors' win over Pontotoc, could end up determining one of the top two seeds.
“I'm worried because we've dropped a goose egg on the road. But if our kids will give us that same kind of preparation this week, we had the best three days of practice since I've been here,” Ashley said. “That's because our kids were sick and tired of getting beat. We can't be complacent because we have four weeks left and it will be a grind. They have to come back, buy in and get ready for the Pontotoc Warriors.”
Ashley said the win is one of the biggest ones for their football program.
“High school football is such a grind for these kids, and they deserve success,” he said. “For whatever reason, we haven't had it. Tonight was the first time all year though that we played solid on defense, in the kicking game and on offense. I'm fired up for our kids. It's just a great night to be an Amory Panther.”