The Lecanto Panthers (3-1) downed the Hernando Leopards (2-3) by a 34-12 margin in Friday’s gridiron matchup. The Leopards traveled to Citrus County, enjoying a two-game winning streak, and looked to match their win total from last season with a victory. The Panthers were not going to allow that, though, as the home team used a strong second-half performance to pull away from Hernando late. After the game, Leopards Head Coach John Scargle broke down what he liked about his squad’s performance and the reasons why the team fell short on Friday.
“Well, we didn’t practice well all week, and it showed tonight,” Coach Scargle said. “We started off the game strong. The defense played really good. We had a couple mental breakdowns in the secondary that cost us, but for the most part, we were playing hard. Lecanto’s a good team. They’re a well-coached team. We had to play really good football tonight to come out on top. We just didn’t do it.”
The first scoreless quarter flew by as each team had a single full possession to work with. Not counting plays negated due to penalties, Lecanto ran nine plays as Hernando ran ten clock-chewing plays on a drive that ventured deep into enemy territory before stalling. To begin the second quarter, a three-and-out ensued on each team’s next drive before the home team got the fireworks started.
Another time-consuming possession of seven plays drained the clock. Set up by a short punt that landed out of bounds near midfield, Lecanto drove to the goal line before Junior RB Caden Moore broke a tackle and barged into the endzone with 4:37 left in the half. The Panthers would set up in a peculiar two-point conversion formation, with most players out wide to the left. Senior RB/LB Colton McNeely took the snap up the middle to give the Green and Gold the 8-0 lead.
The Leopards would follow up with a three-and-out, but their defense would bail them out on Lecanto’s next drive. On second down, after being heavily pressured in the pocket, Sophomore QB JT Tipton was picked off by Senior CB/WR Aaron Laskey. The Purple and Gold opened the next possession with excellent field position at Lecanto’s 31-yard line. They used a five-play drive that ran out all but four seconds off the clock to answer with a touchdown of their own. A QB sneak by Sophomore Michael Saltsman put the visitors on the board, but a missed extra point after being backed up due to a penalty left the Leopards down by two going into halftime.
The Leopards also received the ball coming out of the break, so a chance to double up on points before Lecanto could respond presented itself. What initially looked like an uneventful three-and-out quickly turned into what equated to one long drive as Junior WR/DB Tez Joseph muffed the punt and Hernando regained possession. Four plays later, Senior FS/WR Leandre Wright caught a Saltsman pass behind the secondary on a go route for the 44-yard touchdown and the lead. That’s when things started to go wrong for Coach Scargle and company.
“We went up 12-8, then we had a breakdown in coverage, and they hit a post right over the middle for a touchdown,” said the Hernando coach. “Kind of gave them momentum. Then, once that started, we just couldn’t get it back.”
A busted coverage on Junior WR/DB Nathan Vonderhaar’s reception three plays into Lecanto’s next drive gave the home team the 15-12 lead. A scoop-and-score scare for the Leopards happened on the ensuing kickoff, with the home team believing they had nabbed another quick score. While the ball was ultimately ruled dead, the near disaster did not bode well for Scargle’s squad. The visitors would muster another drive where they crossed midfield but came away empty-handed again.
Head Coach Jacob Coulson and the Panthers continued to build on their momentum with another quick five-play drive. Joseph would atone for his earlier mistake on this possession with two long receptions, including an over-the-shoulder catch on a well-thrown ball by Tipton. Despite the defender being flagged for defensive pass interference on the play, the receiver still managed to catch the ball in stride for the 46-yard touchdown.
Though they would allow the PAT to be blocked, the home team would ice the game early in the fourth quarter. A mere four plays removed from their last score, Joseph would continue his second-half breakout with a pick-six of Saltsman. Despite having another PAT blocked, Lecanto now led by a comfortable 27-12 margin. The teams traded unsuccessful drives and turnovers on downs, and it seemed as if that was where the score would lie, but a late touchdown in the final 25 seconds ballooned the total to its 34-12 conclusion.
Looking ahead to next week, the Panthers will host the River Ridge Royal Knights (2-3) in a district matchup on Friday night. For the Leopards, they will also host their own district opponent on Friday. Hernando’s head coach is looking to have a better week of practice leading up to their showdown with the Dunnellon Tigers next week.
“We got to just practice better,” Coach Scargle said. “We have to have better practices from start to finish to get ready for the district. Dunnellon’s a very good team, but I think it’s a winnable game for us. We just got to show up and play.”