Panthers fumble against Black Knights

Lenoir City High School’s Zane Ward evades a Robbinsville High School defender Friday in the Panthers’ 35-19 loss to the Black Knights.

The Lenoir City High School Panthers (1-4, 0-1 Region 3-5A) were just a handful of plays away from securing an impressive win Friday over the North Carolina Class 1A powerhouse Robbinsville High School Black Knights, but penalties and four crucial turnovers proved the difference in a 35-19 loss.

Despite the loss, LCHS head football coach Jeff Cortez gathered with the team at midfield following the game and credited the Panthers for never giving up in a hard-fought battle.

“The first quarter was exactly how we scripted it, which was get the opening kickoff and let’s go down and score,” Cortez said. “We had a three-and-out, forced a punt and scored again and had 25 snaps I believe in the first quarter and two touchdowns, and that’s what we want. We had some bad throws, late throws that resulted in two interceptions and 14 points for them. Of course, they got another score there, too, and we knew who this was we were playing. We weren’t playing some pushover school because they are 24-1 the last two years, and they win football games for a reason. You can’t turn the football over four times and beat them.”

Cortez said the contest against the Black Knights fell into his lap after scrambling to find an opponent as a makeup game. Robbinsville is an established Class 1A program in North Carolina and clinched the Class 1A championship in 2019.

“I really didn’t know much about them, but one of their assistant coaches called me when I was watching my son playing at Maryville College and I quickly Googled Robbinsville High School and I was like, ‘Oh, they’ve won some games and have done this’,” Cortez said. “I thought it was important to play instead of just having another bye week, and everything materialized late Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning, we did a full film exchange and started diving into the film so Sunday was kind of normal for me, us as a staff. We felt we had a pretty good game plan both offensively and defensively. It’s a quality opponent, and I’d rather play than not play so it was important for us to get on the field.”

The Panthers received the opening kickoff and drove 55 yards in 10 plays, which was capped by a 11-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Brett Cortez to sophomore receiver Trey Wilhite to give the Panthers a 6-0 lead in the first four minutes of the game.

Lenoir City’s defense forced a quick three-and-out and a punt, and the Panthers capitalized again on a long, 14-play drive that resulted in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Brett to Wilhite to extend the lead to 13-0 heading into the second quarter.

However, Robbinsville’s offense settled down in the second quarter and ended up scoring 21 unanswered points to lead 21-13 at halftime.

“They’re a tough football team and it’s difficult because they’re going to run the ball until it works and if it doesn’t, they’ll throw it like they did multiple times,” Egan Rains, LCHS junior lineman, said. “We did well in the first half, and then they started figuring us out, started figuring our defense out. We made those adjustments and then by the end, they changed it up again and I don’t think we had time to fully fix what we were doing in the fourth quarter.”

Both teams were held scoreless in the third quarter. The Panthers forced a fumble midway through the fourth quarter, and LCHS senior linebacker Ayden Bennett recovered the ball and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown.

Lenoir City attempted to tie the game with a 2-point conversion but came up short. Robbinsville then responded on the next offensive series with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive to extend the lead to 28-19 with less than four minutes remaining in the game.

Lenoir City senior Zane Ward returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, but the play was called back due to a holding penalty.

The Panthers hoped to score again late in the fourth, but the Black Knights thwarted the offense with a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal the 35-19 victory.

Although the Panthers found success through the air, especially in the short passing game, the Black Knights out-gained Lenoir City 364-204 in total yards and only gave up one turnover and eight penalties compared to the Panthers’ four turnovers and nine penalties.

“We had some late hit personal fouls on us and there wasn’t much to say, but obviously some of those penalties were lack of composure and those are the hitting yards of a football game,” Jeff said. “When you add in penalty yards or punt return or kick return yards, those are oftentimes yards that go unnoticed. They’re big and it’s just free yardage for the opponent and, again, it’s a good football team and you can’t do that.”

A bright spot was the defensive line and linebackers blitzing gaps and creating havoc in the backfield throughout the game. Junior lineman Dalton Dukes led the team with 13 tackles and three tackles for loss, while Rains finished second with seven tackles and two tackles for loss.

“I think defensive line-wise, we had a really great game and set the edge some,” Rains said. “We struggled a couple of times with certain routes, but I think overall upfront that we had a great game. We have to keep working, keep our heads up, forget the past and just keep working and get back out there next week.”

The Panthers will play again at 7 p.m. Friday at Karns High School for the second Region 3-5A contest of the season.