Pelham falls in regular season finale

The Pelham Panthers dropped their regular season finale Thursday on Senior Night against the Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa Patriots, 23-9, but the 3-7 Panthers will live to fight another day as Jess Lanier looms in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs.

Despite playing without quarterback Tripp Martin and leading tackler Jake Holland due to injuries, the Panthers had hoped to gain some offensive momentum leading up to Friday’s playoff match-up.

However, the Panthers were out-gained offensively, 339 to 221 yards.

“We still have to make plays,” Pelham head coach Brett Burnett said of playing without Martin and Holland. “Offensively, it has been extremely frustrating all year.”

Neither teams’ offense could seem to get going Friday, and it was the Panthers’ special teams that struck first on a 40-yard Cameron Haynes field goal with just 23 seconds left to play in the opening quarter.

The Pelham defense gave the Panthers’ special teams another chance to score when Hudson Pitts recovered a fumbled Hillcrest snap, but Haynes failed to convert on the 31-yard field goal.

The Patriots quickly took advantage of the missed kick as OK Bryant made a diving catch in the end zone to catch a tipped Jared Pratt pass to put Hillcrest up 7-3 with just 44 seconds remaining in the half.

The Panthers wasted no time in the second half as Ryan Williams scampered 50 yards on the opening possession of the half to put Pelham on top, 9-7, after the failed conversion pass.

The Patriots tacked on a 27-yard field goal on the next possession and then held the Panthers on downs before striking once more on a 7-yard pass from Pratt to Christopher Wilson with 35 seconds remaining in the quarter to take the lead for good, 16-9.

Pelham quarterback Gray Cato was intercepted by Malcolm Peyton on the Panthers’ first possession of the final quarter, and then Hillcrest running back Jaabir Stephens took the ball in from 16 yards to close out the scoring, 23-9.

Offensively for the Panthers, Cato was 16-of-24 for 115 yards and two interceptions, while Williams had four carries for 60 yards and a touchdown.

Williams also had 100 yards in kickoff returns.

“We’ll try to forget about this one,” Burnett said of moving on to the playoffs next week. “It’s a whole new season.”