By Wil Crews

The Smiths Station Panthers scraped and fought the whole way in their opening game of the season. Ultimately, however, the Panthers were sent home with their tails tucked, falling to the Gardendale Rockets 26-7.

It was a humid, muggy and showery night at Panther Stadium. After receiving a forfeit victory in week one, the tumultuous weather had also put the Panthers’ second scheduled game in jeopardy. However, after a 30-minute lightning delay, there was football to be played.

Gardendale received the ball to begin and marched right down the field. Rockets’ quarterback and West Virginia commit Will Crowder hit his wide receiver on a precise back shoulder pass for a 21-yard touchdown to open the scoring. The extra point was good and the Rockets led 7-0 early.

Smiths would not be outdone for long, however. Establishing the run to open their first drive, Smiths Station quarterback Corey Minton then hit a Panther receiver for a deep back shoulder pass of their own. The gain put the Panthers on the 1-yard line and Jordan Jones punched it in to tie the game, 7-7, with 5:18 left in the first.

Both teams struggled to get a rhythm until 2:30 left in the first quarter. That was, until Crowder zipped the ball to Gardendale running back LT Sanders, who shot through the middle of the field, slipped right behind the unaware Panther secondary, and went untouched into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown. 13-7 Rockets. Smiths failed to threaten on offense for the rest of the half, but their defense would settle in. After another well-balanced drive, Gardendale faced a third and goal. The Rockets handed the ball off, only to get blown up by Panther defensive end Cam Johnson, forcing a fourth down. Gardendale settled for the field goal, making it 16-7 Rockets. With a rather uneventful second quarter coming to a close, the Panther defense showed their resilience again, sacking the Gardendale’s Crowder near the 50-yard line as the clock ran out. Half time: 16-7, Gardendale.

Smiths would receive the ball to start the second half. The rain had dried up by this point, but not before turning the field into a muddy slip and slide. The Panthers relied heavily on the run in the first half and would try to do the same in the second. It was an exercise in futility –  three plays later the Panthers were forced to punt.

Gardendale then failed to capitalize on the good field position – a trend that would prevent the Rockets from breaking the game open earlier than they did. Still, Gardendale struck first in the third quarter with another field goal. Smiths Station trailed 19-7.

The Panthers continued to play with admirable spirit as the game continued into the fourth quarter. However, they were simply outmatched. Gardendale’s offensive and defensive line towered over the Panthers’. Both teams remained committed to the rushing attack in the poor conditions. The Rockets consistently had more push up front and running back Lt Sanders blasted through the holes. The Rockets were more dominant through the air as well. Crowder sliced the Panthers defense with short throws seemingly at will. He hit another Gardendale receiver on a slant with 9:57 to go in the fourth to put the Rockets up 26-7. If there was any hope left in the Smiths Station faithful, it was soon lost. Gardendale intercepted Smiths’ Minton 41 seconds later – effectively ending the game. The Panthers had two more drives on offense and showed reason for promise with their rushing attack. Overall, Smiths didn’t play terribly, and there were plenty of positives to build off of going forward. Still, the clock hit triple zero during a final unthreatening Panther drive. Final score: 26-7, the Gardendale Rockets defeat the Smiths Station Panthers.

Next week, Smiths Station (1-1) will look to bounce back at home again versus Central Phenix City. The game is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 4, at 7 p.m. CST at Panther Stadium.