MERRITT ISLAND – After graduating 34 seniors last year, there were some people who probably didn’t think the Merritt Island Mustangs had another district title in them.
And after Palm Bay scored 21 unanswered points — including two touchdowns within 12 seconds — to turn a 10-point Merritt Island lead into an 11-point deficit at halftime, there were probably some who wondered if the Mustangs had another comeback in them, too.
That’s what made Merritt Island’s fifth consecutive district championship taste so sweet.
Quarterback Jimmy Batch dove in from the 1-yard line with 2:33 to play and Merritt Island held off the visiting Pirates the rest of the way to claim a wild 41-34 victory and the District 14-5A title.
“Just keep playing hard and believe in each other,” Mustangs coach Jeff McLean said he told his team after it fell behind 28-17 at the half.
“That’s what these kids have done all year. When we lost 34 seniors, a lot of people kind of counted them out, and these kids have played hard. We knew it would be a knock-down, drag-out fight like it is with Palm Bay every year.”
Palm Bay (6-2 overall, 3-1 district), which also clinched a playoff spot as the district runner-up, certainly showed plenty of heart, too.
Running back Brian Lankford-Johnson ran for 177 yards on 15 first-half carries and scored on runs of 77 and 51 yards. However, he only had four carries in the second half and missed time for much of the third quarter.
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Pirates quarterback Stuart Brown hit Desmond Arthur with a 21-yard touchdown pass with 7:17 to play in the third quarter to put the Pirates up 34-24. However, Brown took a big hit on the play and did not return.
It was a game of big plays, miscues and more big plays.
After Lankford-Johnson’s 77-yard touchdown run, Merritt Island scored on a 37-yard fumble return by Quentin Ashley. Trevor Moates had a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown and Deben Peterson returned a punt 46 yards for a score. Batch hit Taquan Pratt with a 25-yard touchdown pass and kicker Mason Denaburg connected on field goals of 35 and 45 yards.
Palm Bay, meanwhile, got an interception from Ossie Samuel that helped set up a 6-yard Jared Morris touchdown run, and on the ensuing kickoff, Ozzie Samuel picked up a fumble and returned it to the Merritt Island 2-yard line. Once again, it was Morris who scored 12 seconds after his initial touchdown.
It all set up a wild finish.
With the score tied at 34-34, the Mustangs (6-2, 4-0) got the ball at the 50-yard line with 4:41 to play.
“We knew we had to do it,” Batch said.
And after driving to the 1-yard line, the Mustangs junior quarterback got it done.
“I had full confidence in my line,” Batch said. “They did a great job. They blocked for me, and I just got the ball over the goal line.”
Merritt Island 41, Palm Bay 34
Palm Bay 7 21 6 0 — 34
Merritt Island 7 10 14 10 — 41
HOW THEY SCORED
PB — Brian Lankford-Johnson 77 run (Chase Jessee kick) 9:08.
MI — Quentin Ashley 37 fumble return (Mason Denaburg kick) 6:35.
MI — Taquan Pratt 25 pass from Jimmy Batch (Denaburg kick) 9:19.
MI — Denaburg 35 field goal 7:27.
PB — Lankford-Johnson 51 run (Jessee kick) 5:32.
PB — Jared Morris 6 run (Jessee kick) 2:42.
PB — Morris 2 run (Jessee kick) 2:30.
MI — Deben Peterson 46 punt return (Denaburg kick) 10:51.
PB — Desmond Arthur 21 pass from Stuart Brown (kick partially blocked) 7:17.
MI — Trevor Moates 35 interception return (Denaburg kick) 3:29.
MI — Denaburg 45 field goal 7:04.
MI — Batch 1 run (Denaburg kick) 2:33.
Rushing: PB — Brian Lankford-Johnson 19-188, Desmond Arthur 9-54, Chase Harris 7-31, Tyshan Rolle 4-27, Jared Morris 6-15, Stuart Brown 1-2, Ossie Samuel 1-0, Carson White 1-0; MI — Taquan Pratt 14-90, Jimmy Batch 19-48, Deben Peterson 3-14, Raleigh Barfield 2-0. Passing: PB — Stuart Brown 5-11-1-0, 76 yards, Arthur 1-2-0-1, 16 yards; MI — Batch 6-11-1-1, 90 yards. Receiving: PB — Harris 2-53, Arthur 2-21, Lankford-Johnson 2-18; MI — Peterson 2-46, Pratt 2-28, Luke Clark 1-10, David Dufresne 1-6.
Records: Palm Bay 6-2 overall, 3-1 Class 5A, District 14, Merritt Island 6-2 overall, 4-0 Class 5A, District 14.