REFORM — There was time only to react, not reflect, when Walker White saw the ball loose after a Pickens County fumble with less than two minutes left in the Class 1A state semifinal.
But once he pounced on it, it was clear a season that started with Mars Hill a first-time reigning state champion was headed back to where that 2018 season ended — at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium in a state championship game.
White’s fumble recovery secured Mars Hill’s 22-18 win over Pickens County on Friday, sending the Panthers to Thursday’s Class 1A state final against Lanett with a chance to win a second consecutive state title.
“Sense of urgency just to go get it and make a play for my team,” the senior White said. “Unbelievable team we were playing. A ton of respect for them.”
Mars Hill (14-0) handed Pickens County (11-3) a second consecutive state semifinal defeat. The Tornadoes had not lost to a Class 1A team since their previous meeting with the Panthers.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling and I’m so excited for our team,” Mars Hill coach Darrell Higgins said. “They’ve worked so hard and just fought through everything that’s been put in front of them this year and just kept on going. Couldn’t be more proud of them.”
It was Mars Hill’s most difficult game of the season. The Panthers trailed twice, the latter instance 18-16 with 11 minutes left after JaCorian Cosby’s 5-yard touchdown run.
Griffin Hanson threw an interception on the first play of the ensuing drive, but Mars Hill’s defense forced a quick punt.
The Panthers capitalized, going 54 yards in an 11-play drive that might be the most memorable of the program’s young history. McDaniel converted a fourth and one, Kilpatrick had a 23-yard gain and Hanson rolled left for a tough 4-yard run to the 1-yard line that secured a first down.
McDaniel ran up the middle for his third touchdown of the night with 3:18 left.
“We’ve been waiting on this all year long, having to play four quarters. We’ve been getting mentally ready for it,” Higgins said. “So when it came time, we were excited about it.”
Pickens County made some nice gains and reached the Panthers 40, but a couple Panthers linemen forced a fumble that White fell on to start the celebration in the nearly-packed Mars Hill stands.
Pickens County led 6-0 early after Javion Belle’s short touchdown keeper and a missed extra point, but McDaniel bounced outside for a 55-yard touchdown run down the right sideline on Mars Hill’s next play. Peyton Higgins’ dive at the right pylon gave Mars Hill an 8-6 lead.
After the Panthers forced a punt, Higgins ran 72 yards to set up a 6-yard McDaniel touchdown run and 2-point run.
“I couldn’t have done it without the rest of my teammates, the line blocking for me and everything,” McDaniel said of his three-touchdown night. “I can’t get through there without my linemen.”
Belle’s 2-yard touchdown keeper cut the lead to 16-12 by halftime, and the Tornadoes gave Mars Hill only one third-quarter drive before Cosby capped a 59-yard drive with his short TD run to give Pickens County the lead.
Pickens County’s star lineman Jah-Marien Latham limped off the field in the first half but returned quickly. And the Alabama commit was no one-man show. Pickens County had talented players at many positions.
“It feels really good to have earned this thing, you know? Because some of the teams, they haven’t matched up with us very well,” McDaniel said. “This team, they definitely matched up with us really well and they made us fight for it.”
Said White: “They were big and physical up front, and of course we played them last year, so they really wanted this game and you could tell just by the way they were playing.
“But I feel like we wanted it more by the way that we played. Unbelievable effort. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”
Mars Hill has won 24 games in a row. Thursday’s championship game will be at 3 p.m. Lanett – which won the 2017 Class 2A title, beat Sweet Water 42-35 on Friday and is 13-0.
“There are a lot of new kids on our team that didn’t get to play last year. Every year is just so exciting,” Higgins said. “(We) never take it for granted getting to make it to a state championship, and really glad that this group’s getting to go.”