Milton coach Chafan Marsh emerged from the joyous, midfield bedlam, clutching the game’s prized trophy while cherishing the significance.
The once nightmare season for his team has turned memorable.
The Panthers (3-7, 3-2 in District 1-6A) are going to the playoffs, thanks to resiliency which helped produce a 21-14 victory Friday night against neighboring rival Pace before an overflow crowd at the 5,000-capacity Patriots Stadium.
“Emotions are just crazy right now. I am just trying to keep from breaking down,” said Marsh as his players were engulfed by their classmates the instant the game ended. “It is unbelievable what these kids did.”
From 0-7, Milton won three district games, got help Friday from Pine Forest’s win against Pensacola High and earned the second playoff spot by virtue of its upset win three weeks ago against then-unbeaten Escambia.
Pace (6-4, 4-1) clinched the district title last week and will host the first round of the playoffs.
“We got the helmet, Dad!” said Marsh’s young son, as his father held the Bronze Helmet Trophy that has been a symbolic treasure of this riveting rivalry.
“It’s almost unbelievable from where we came from … to be where we are right now,” said Marsh, whose team beat Pace last season. “These young men stuck together.”
Friday night, they shined together. A trio of big plays from all three facets — offense, defense and special teams — proved decisive.
None bigger than defensive back Drew Manning, who snared a mid-air fumble caused by a teammate, then raced 65 yards for a touchdown with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. It became the play of the game.
“I had all the open field in front of me, and I was just thinking if I get this, I have to get into the end zone,” Manning said.
Pace had the ball twice in the fourth quarter. The first time, the Patriots were unable to get a first down. The second time, they were forced into a punting situation, facing 4th-and-9 from their own 37 with 6:12 left.
When they got the ball back, it was just for one final desperation play with nine seconds left. Milton powered its way from the Panthers’ 9 and reached the Pace 10, nearly killing all of the clock.
“We had our chances,” said Pace coach Mickey Lindsey. “(Milton) did a good job. They had a good plan. We’ve just got to regroup and get better.”
It is something Marsh preached to his own team, following the disappointing first half of the season.
But Friday night, Milton proved its turnaround. The Panthers began the game with Jake Butler blocking a Pace punt on the opening possession. Butler recovered at the Pace 17. Two plays later, quarterback Trevor Walters faked Patriots defense and scored on a 12-yard keeper.
The Patriots answered on the ensuing possession. Quaide Weimerskirch, who scored both of the team’s touchdowns and rushed for 224 yards, broke free on a 17 yard run to tie the game.
Less than a minute later, Milton regained the lead when Andre Flakes took a pitch from Walters, then stopped and threw a pass that connected with Bobby Green in stride for a 51-yard touchdown.
Midway through the second quarter, Weimerskirch broke loose for a 51-yard touchdown, and the game was tied at halftime. It stayed that way until Manning’s fumble return off a quarterback exchange.
“This means everything to us.” Marsh said.
At Patriot Stadium
MILTON 21, PACE 14
Milton…14 0 7 0–21
Pace…7 7 0 0–14
M–Trevor Walters 12 run (Corliss Waitman kick), 9:42.
P–Quaide Weimerskirch 17 run (Noah Green kick), 5:40
M–Bobby Green 51 pass from Andre Flakes (Waitman kick). 4:56.
P-Weimerskirch 51 run (Green kick), 6:51
M–Drew Manning 65 fumble return (Waitman kick), 0:33