Panthers pull off second straight win

Lenoir City High School quarterback Brett Cortez drops back for a pass Friday in the Panthers’ 20-14 win over the Heritage High School Mountaineers.

For the second week in a row, the Lenoir City High School football team rose to the occasion.

The Panthers escaped with a 20-14 win Friday on the road against a gritty Heritage High School Mountaineers squad.

Jeff Cortez, LCHS head football coach, credited the team for winning two consecutive games that came down to the wire.

“I think the most important thing is that we have kept playing throughout the whole season,” he said. “We’ve had, I think, a pretty solid last half of the season with Karns, the second half with Clinton where in the second half we were toe-to-toe with those guys. Of course, now we’ve got two wins in a row, so I think that’s what I’m most proud of for our guys that just continue to play, continue to play hard, take advantages of opportunities laid in front of them.”

Both offenses struggled in the majority of the first half, but the Panthers eventually struck first late in the second quarter when sophomore quarterback Brett Cortez connected with senior receiver Dusty Clevenger for a 12-yard touchdown pass to go up 7-0 heading into halftime.

The Panthers amassed 160 total yards of offense in the first half and held the Mountaineers to just 60.

“The game plan was to come out a whole lot faster and score early and often, but we were just missing a little bit here and there, a couple of penalties here and there and it just kind of stalled us a little bit,” Jeff said. “When we missed, it was just by an inch, and we missed some opportunities for some throws down the field by just a little bit. Defensively, we’ve been playing extremely well I think, especially against the run for weeks now. I thought we started off, defensively, really good and controlled what they wanted to do.”

The Mountaineers made adjustments at the break and came out swinging early in the third quarter after shifting into an empty set, setting up a nine-play scoring drive that resulted in an 8-yard touchdown run by HHS quarterback Wesley Deck.

Heritage missed the extra point attempt, which allowed Lenoir City another scoring opportunity four minutes later as Brett completed his second touchdown pass of the night to Jordy Carroll from 17 yards out to extend the lead to 14-6 with 3:30 left in the third.

The Panthers threatened to score again to begin the fourth quarter, but the Mountaineers’ defensive front penetrated the backfield and forced a costly interception that was returned 95 yards by Kyle Headrick for a touchdown. Heritage converted the 2-point conversion to even the score at 14-14 with 11 minutes left to go.

“I mean what else is there to say other than, ‘All right, next snap let’s go back and drive again’,” Jeff said. “We just needed them to stay calm and go right back out there.”

Lenoir City scored nearly seven minutes later when junior running back Chris McCord powered his way into the end zone from 8 yards out to push the Panthers back out to a 20-14 lead with four minutes remaining.

The Mountaineers forced a three-and-out with under two minutes left in the game. After a series of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, momentum began to swing in Heritage’s favor to set up a game-winning drive.

However, the Panthers’ defense applied pressure on the final two plays of the game, which resulted in an interception by Carroll as time expired.

Carroll led the team with five tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception.

“This is incredible because we haven’t gotten two wins in a row in so long and to be the first to do that in a while, it’s just special for us,” Carroll said. “They ran the ball a lot but our defensive line, I’ve got to give credit to them because they did so well against their offensive line and got a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage, which helped us out in the secondary a lot. All I was thinking on that last play was, ‘I can’t let them get to it’.”

With wins over Stone Memorial, Hixson and Heritage, the Panthers will look to cap the season Friday against highly talented Region 3-5A the Powell High School Panthers (7-2, 4-0 Region 3-5A).

Powell is coming off a close 30-29 loss to the Knoxville Catholic High School Fighting Irish and is looking to remain unbeaten in region play. Powell is led by senior defensive tackle Walter Nolan — the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit for the Class of 2022.

Powell also boasts one of the best receiving corps in the state led by Adarius Redmond, who is ranked a four-star and the No. 2 best player in the state for the Class of 2023.

“In terms of next week, every opportunity just builds confidence,” Jeff said. “I don’t want to dwell on the past, but that COVID week for us was just at the wrong time and our guys are all now finally healthy and they’re playing better. Even one of the guys said, ‘We’re back,’ and it was good to hear them say those kinds of things. It’s just nice to get some wins here.”

Although Lenoir City will have its hands full in the season finale, the coaching staff is pleased with the progression the team has made.

Despite a slow first-half start, the Panthers finished the night with 352 total offensive yards, while holding the Mountaineers to just 166.

“We’ve got guys healthy — guys like Trey (Wilhite) and Dusty, who’s been a little off after game one and he’s finally back,” Jeff said. “I thought Brett did a nice job of moving the pocket and throwing balls. We were moving the ball but not really not getting in the zone, and I thought we had a good, physical running game again this week. That was kind of a nice balance.”