By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SPRING GARDEN – Out of the seven Class 1A teams the Coosa Christian Conquerors have faced on their schedule this football season, only the Spring Garden Panthers can say they’ve held their own against them.
During their regular season meeting on Sept. 1, the Panthers held Coosa to its lowest point total of the season – minus a shutout loss in the Conquerors’ season opener at Class 3A Geraldine.
However, six turnovers proved costly for the Panthers in a 15-point setback.
The two teams met again for the fourth time in two seasons on Friday night. The Panthers managed to cut down on the turnovers from their earlier meeting this season, but Coosa’s defense was still able to turn in a dominating performance.
The Conquerors blanked Spring Garden 28-0 for their fourth consecutive shutout. It was their seventh overall shutout on the field this season, counting four forfeits following the use of ineligible players.
“Their defense I feel like is the best part of their team,” Spring Garden head coach Barrett Ragsdale said. “They’ve got a good offense too, but their defense is fast. They fly around. They gave us some trouble.”
But it was Coosa’s offense that set the tone early in the game.
On the Conquerors’ opening drive, they marched 64 yards in 17 plays and ate up almost 5 ½ minutes of the first-quarter clock. The end result was Kanon Wilson’s 5-yard touchdown run to give Coosa a 7-0 advantage.
“Our defense made them fight for every yard that first drive, and really I thought all the way to halftime,” Ragsdale said. “We didn’t just give them any big plays. We did a good job holding our gaps and playing fast. We had some things that didn’t go our way, but you’ve got to line up and play the next play.”
Spring Garden’s defense did help keep the Panthers (8-3) within striking distance in the first half, but the offense sputtered the entire game.
Of the Panthers’ five first-half possessions, four resulted in punts and another an interception. By halftime Coosa had built a 21-0 edge. The Conquerors’ other two scores in the first half came on two touchdown runs from quarterback John David Justus (1 and 3 yards in the second quarter).
Justus led the Conquerors (6-5) with 136 yards and two scores on 15 carries. He also completed 12-of-23 pass attempts for 90 yards.
In the second half, Spring Garden’s defense managed to turn Coosa’s offense away deep inside Panther territory twice, but Joshua Hester’s 25-yard touchdown run with 5:14 remaining in the fourth quarter sealed the game.
Wilson collected 99 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown for the Conquerors, who will host Lynn in next week’s second round. Hester had 61 yards on nine totes with a score.
“I’m pleased with the effort, but I’m not real pleased with how we played,” Coosa coach Mark O’Bryant said. “We just left way too much on the field. You can’t get inside the 10 and the 5 (yard line) twice and walk away with zero. You’ve got to be able to score touchdowns. We couldn’t do that. Credit to them. They played hard, but we just weren’t there. Penalties hurt us really bad.
“We set the tone, but the problem was we didn’t back that up consistently. Too many penalties.”
Barber threw for 69 yards on six pass completions to lead the Panther offense. John Welsh had a pair of catches for 41 yards. He also led the Panther ground game with 28 yards on five carries.
In his final game as a Panther, all-purpose threat Chapel Pope ran for 10 yards on seven carries. He also had three catches for 26 yards and completed a pair of passes for seven yards.
The game also marked the end of the high school football careers of Jacob Dempsey and Cayden Buttram.
“Chapel Pope, it seems like he’s been playing since sixth or seventh grade. He’s done a lot of stuff for us,” Ragsdale said. “You’ve got Jacob Dempsey who’s been with us for a long time and Caden Buttram come in a little late, but he jumped right in. He had a good senior year. I’m proud of those guys.
“One of my least favorite parts of the job is our seniors’ last game. You sit there and look at them and see all the time you put in with them, how much you love them and how much they mean to us and the program. We’re going to miss those guys.”
The game also marked the end of Ragsdale’s first season at the helm of the Panthers. He was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach in July following the retirement of legendary coach Jason Howard.
“I couldn’t be any more proud to say this was my first group as a head coach,” Ragsdale said. “I love this group of kids. I love the group of coaches I get to coach with. The kids never quit. The coaches never quit. We had some lows during the season, but our kids bounced back and our coaches kept coaching hard. They came in every day ready to work. They just progressed as the year went on, and I couldn’t be any more proud of them.”