Panther Stadium fell silent after Lawrence celebrated a 14-7 lead in the opening quarter of the 6A West sub-state matchup on Nov. 19.
It was short-lived as the Panthers bounced back with 34 unanswered as part of a 62-28 win, which punched Derby’s ticket to the state championship for the seventh straight year.
What was the turning point? On the ensuing kickoff that knotted the game at 14 in the first quarter senior place kicker Scott Simmons’ kickoff fell untouched and bounced right into the hands of Junior linebacker Kade Sheldon to set up a Derby drive at the Lawrence 28-yard line.
“It was a momentum changer,” head coach Brandon Clark said. “Both teams were going back and forth, and to get that little luck on our side was a spark plug for us. We were able to punch it in, get a couple of stops and punch a couple more in, which gave us a little cushion and some momentum.”
It looked like business as usual after junior running back Dylan Edwards took a 37-yard run to the end zone on the game’s first drive.
Lawrence responded with a 10-yard touchdown run backed by a big pass play. The Chesty Lions looked to steal some early momentum with a turnover on downs followed by a second consecutive touchdown drive to take a 14-7 lead.
Derby turned to the air attack on the next drive, and Mercer Thatcher connected with junior wide receiver Nathan Keener on a 26-yard touchdown pass to tie the game. Then the switch turned on for the Panthers following the kickoff recovery and touchdown.
Senior wide receiver Cayden Brown really got the Panthers rolling with a 21-yard touchdown throw to senior tight end Drake Thatcher to take a 28-14 lead in the second quarter.
The play has been on the play sheet for a couple of weeks, and Brown made the play when the opportunity came up.
“When they called that play, my heart sank a little bit because it was early in the game,” Brown said. “But Dylan [Edwards] showed confidence in me, and I knew Drake was down there somewhere and I threw it down there.”
The Panthers knew that there would need to be some trickery in the game plan to keep the Chesty Lions on their toes.
“We knew we were going to have to open up because Lawrence’s defensive line was huge, and their backers were good,” Clark said. “We knew we were going to have to keep them on their toes.”
Edwards re-entered the chat with a 79-yard run and an 11-yard run with 27 seconds remaining in the first half to create the separation. The junior tacked on a 69-yard run en route to a four touchdown, 302-yard night.
Mercer Thatcher finished the night going 6-for-10 with 140 yards and one passing touchdown. On 12 carries, Thatcher ran for 82 yards and three rushing scores, including a 46-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
According to Clark, Thatcher has shown a lot of growth for the Panthers all season and showed it in the victory.
“Mercer has been the glue," Clark said. "He’s always been the captain out there and controlled the game well and threw the ball with confidence.”
The Panthers amassed 568 yards of total offense, including 407 on the ground.
The Chesty Lions tacked on a 37-yard touchdown run to start the third quarter and added a 26-yard pass touchdown late in the final quarter. Lawrence finished the night with a balanced offense with 128 passing yards and 150 on the ground.
Obviously, this is not the main goal for the Panthers, as there is still one more game to go to finish the fight.
“We have one game left, and we didn’t set a goal to make it to state; we set a goal to finish it off at state,” Clark said. “We still have some work to do this week.”
The Panthers will face Blue Valley Northwest in the state championship game. Kickoff from Emporia is scheduled for 1 p.m. Nov. 27.