Going 3-4 usually means no one gives you a chance of making the playoffs, let alone winning a South State Championship. But the Petal Panthers defied the odds with their seven game win streak and South State Championship win over Meridian, 36-28.
The Panthers now face Starkville for the Class 6A State Championship. But when did the Panthers’ season turn around? And how? Petal coach Marcus Boyles said it was all thanks to his team’s loss to Brandon.
“I think the Brandon game turned things around for us, definitely,” Boyles said. “After that our senior guys just got together and started to see a whole new team. Practicing better and preparing better, just overall competing at a higher level.”
Defensive coordinator Phillip Pigott also saw a change, especially in the defense.
“Our guys started to believe again (after Brandon),” Pigott said. “They started to buy into what we do and put in the work, week in and week out.”
And Pigott is right. The Panthers have forced at least a pair of turnovers per game and have played a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense according to senior linebacker Logan Boutwell.
“Our whole philosophy is playing as one,” Boutwell said. “We are built around all 11 guys coming together and doing their specific job. We have played like a family too, because we treat the whole team like our family and we have bonded and gotten better together.”
The change in mentality is not just with the defense, however, but the offense as well.
“The mentality has been night and day with our guys,” offensive coordinator Lanny Beach said. “They believe in themselves more and they have finally realized what it was going to take to take the next step, and they did.”
Offensively, the Panthers relied on junior running back Stephon Huderson too much early in the season and were one dimensional. But growth in quarterback Samuel Hopper has seen Petal’s offense grow to new heights.
“Balance has been the key for us,” he said. “Early on we relied on Stephon, but now teams can’t key in on him, Sam has taken the next step. We got Tanner (Estill) back and making plays. Guys can’t stack the box on us anymore with guys like Nigel (Wood) who are a threat in the passing game.”
Estill in particular, who was injured in the early part of the season, has transformed the offense for the Panthers since his return to play. Petal utilizes him not only in the pass game, but out of the Wildcat package as well.
“I think it took the seniors coming together and having a meeting during the season and we had to say, ‘Hey, we have to lead by example and take control of this thing,’ ” Estill said. “We knew that wasn’t how we wanted our season to go and we knew we had to turn things around in every aspect of our game.”
Quite the turnaround it is, as Petal will face Starkville for the Class 6A State Championship and will once again be the underdog, like they have been all year. Kickoff between the Panthers and Yellowjackets is set for 7 p.m. Friday in Oxford.