Riverchase caps off championship season with win over Helena

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

The Riverchase Middle School Panthers capped off a perfect conference record Oct. 14 after downing cross-town rival Helena Middle School 32-27 in the third-annual Panther Bowl at Pelham High School.

Riverchase (7-1 overall, 6-0 in conference play) lit up the scoreboard first after Helena fumbled the opening kickoff and Riverchase’s Sam Finnerty recovered the ball on the Helena 40-yard line.

From there, J.T. Kepler, Taylor Petty and quarterback Hunter Stovall steadily moved the ball to the Helena 10-yard line. Stovall then capped off the drive on a 10-yard touchdown run, giving the Riverchase Panthers a 7-0 lead.

Helena then answered on the next drive, scoring a touchdown to bring the game to 7-all.

On its next possession, Riverchase drove 70 yards before the offensive line helped push Stovall into the end zone from the goal line.

After Helena answered on its next possession, again tying the game at 14-all, Riverchase fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Helena recovered on the 50-yard line. The Helena Panthers capitalized on the field position by driving 50 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

Helena’s missed point-after attempt gave them a 20-14 halftime lead.

On the opening play of the second half, Finnerty received the kickoff and ran it back 70 yards for a touchdown. Riverchase also missed the point-after attempt, tying the game at 20-all.

Helena returned the ensuing kickoff to the Riverchase 30-yard line, before capping off a lengthy drive with a touchdown, bringing the game to 27-20 in Helena’s favor.

On a second-and-9 play during Riverchase’s next possession, Stovall was flushed out of the pocket before he broke a tackle and connected with Zach Allison on a 70-yard touchdown pass.

Riverchase made the initial point-after attempt, but an illegal formation penalty against Riverchase forced them to re-try the kick. When the second attempt failed, Helena remained in the lead 27-26.

After forcing Helena to go three-and-out on its next series, Riverchase regained possession of the ball before scoring on a touchdown run by Taylor Petty. Riverchase failed a two-point conversion attempt, bringing the game to 32-27.

On Helena’s next drive, the Riverchase defense, led by Finnerty, Austin Bowen, Tray Jones, Matthew Messler, Easton Ancelet and Desmond Kersh stopped Helena on a key fourth-and-9 play to regain possession with a little more than two minutes left in the game.

Riverchase then converted a trio of key third-down plays before taking a knee to secure the victory and become the Shelby County middle school champions.

Defensive leaders for the season were Finnerty, who led the team in tackles and recorded two kickoff returns for touchdowns; Kem Muruako, who led the team in sacks and tackles for a loss; and Jeremy Ross, who led the team in interceptions.

Stovall finished the season with more than 1,300 passing yards, and more than 800 rushing yards. He accounted for 14 touchdowns in the air and 15 more rushing touchdowns.

Allison finished the season with 39 receptions for more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns. Offensive lineman, Nathan Walsh, Josh Woodard, Austin Barclay, Corey Dodson and Spencer Wilson paved the way for the offense all season.

The Riverchase Panthers were led by head coach Al Godwin, offensive coordinator Nathan Collins and defensive coordinator Branden Vincent.