Redemption, revenge and relief.
Those were the words that Franklin Road Academy sophomore running back Jeffery Vercher used to describe what he and the Panthers were feeling after posting a 16-14 road victory at Battle Ground Academy on Friday night.
Vercher delivered a workhorse performance, rushing for 120 yards on 34 carries. His three-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter ultimately proved to be the difference-maker for the Panthers (7-1, 2-1) in the key Division II-AA Middle Region win over the Wildcats (4-3, 1-2).
The victory enabled FRA to earn some vindication after suffering a pair of defeats to BGA last year, including a lopsided loss in the semifinals.
“This means so much,” said Vercher. “After those two losses to them last year — losing (14-3) with seven turnovers (in the regular season) and then going to the playoffs and getting blown out by them, right here on this field, 50-7. So tonight was just redemption and revenge. And it’s a relief.”
Vercher left out one other “R” word that also mattered on Friday — rain. Tons of it.
It started with an on-and-off drizzle throughout much of the first half, then turned into an outright downpour just before the end of the second quarter. From there, the rain lingered the rest of the evening, heavy at times, and occasionally coming down sideways amid the strong winds.
After the game, the Panthers enjoyed a soggy celebration, with hugs and high-fives exchanged among the mostly-drenched players, coaches, students and fans.
FRA head coach Bill Whittemore didn’t try to downplay the victory.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “BGA has a great program. They are very talented. It was a great win for us.”
BGA quarterback Nick Semptimphelter, returning from a thumb injury that kept him out of a Week 6 loss to East Nashville, completed 8-of-17 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. Briston Bennett rushed for a team-high 49 yards on 12 carries, including a touchdown. Defensively, Caleb Ryce was credited with 10 tackles.
For FRA, quarterback Sean Casey rushed for 41 yards on 13 attempts. He didn’t go to the air very often — completing 2-of-7 passes — but one of his throws was a 53-yard touchdown toss to Kingston Gardner in the first quarter.
FRA kicker Jack Norris also played a pivotal role in the victory, too. He drilled a 43-yard field goal — despite the driving rain — on the final play of the second quarter to give the Panthers a 9-7 halftime lead.
On defense, FRA linebacker Jacob Jackson was credited with four tackles and also picked off a pass in the third quarter.
“Our kids are playing hard and they believe in what we are doing,” said Whittemore. “They are loving each other well, and they are playing for each other.”
The FRA victory was anchored by an epic third-quarter scoring drive. After a touchback on the kickoff, the Panthers controlled the football for almost 11 minutes — 10:38 to be exact — while marching 80 yards before Vercher capped the drive with his three-yard scoring run that extended FRA’s lead to 16-7 with 1:22 remaining left in the quarter.
The Panthers maintained that advantage until deep into the fourth quarter, and they appeared to have sealed the victory when the FRA defense stopped BGA on a fourth-down play with just 4:11 remaining in the game.
But it wasn’t over.
After FRA went three-and-out on its ensuing possession, BGA blocked the Panthers punt and took over at the 25-yard line. Semptimphelter found Garnett Hollis Jr. for a touchdown on the next play, and Jack Sauder’s extra-point pulled BGA within 16-14 with 2:15 to play.
BGA then attempted an onside kick, but Vercher cleanly fielded the bouncing kick, falling to the ground while clutching the ball. It seemed fitting that Vercher had the ball in his hands on the pivotal play.
Asked what went through his mind when he saw the ball headed his way, Vercher said, “I was thinking, ‘I just can’t drop this,'” he said with a big smile. “My team was there for me all night — and I knew there were times tonight when I had to step up for them. And that was one of those moments when I had to step up.”
Whittemore said the weather conditions were favorable for his run-oriented FRA squad.
“The weather was a gift from God,” he said. “We knew we were going to have run the football … and we knew we had to limit their touches on offense.”
The teams traded scoring drives in the first half.
FRA scored first on the Casey-to-Gardner 53-yard connection with 1:58 left in the first quarter, and BGA answered on its next possession with a scoring drive that was capped by Bennett’s 13-yard run. Sauder’s extra point gave the Wildcats a 7-6 lead with 9:15 left in the second quarter. FRA retook the lead on its final possession of the half when Norris connected for his 43-yard field goal, setting the stage for the eventful, though low-scoring, second half.
The loss is the third in a row for BGA, the first three-game slide for the 2018 DII-AA runners-up since 2012. The Wildcats stay at home next week against Lincoln County and close the regular season at Spring Hill and at Lipscomb Academy.
FRA enters a bye before traveling to South Gibson and ending the season with a region showdown against Christ Presbyterian Academy.
Franklin Road Academy 16, Battle Ground Academy 14
FRA 6 3 7 0 — 16
BGA 0 7 0 7 — 14
1Q (1:58) FRA — Kingston Gardner 53 pass from Sean Casey (kick failed)
2Q (9:15) BGA — Briston Bennett 13 run (Jack Sauder kick)
2Q (0:02) FRA — Jack Norris 43 FG
3Q (1:22) FRA — Jeffery Vercher 3 run (Norris kick)
4Q (2:15) BGA — Garnett Hollis Jr. 25 pass from Nick Semptimphelter (Sauder
First Downs (FRA 13, BGA 10)
Rushing Yards-Attempts (FRA 47-161, BGA 23-86)
Passing Yards (FRA 59, BGA 119)
Comp/Att/Ints (FRA 2-7-0, BGA 8-17-1)
Penalties-Yards (FRA 4-20, BGA 5-45)
Punts-Average (FRA 3-23, BGA 1-28)
FRA — Jeffery Vercher 34-120, Sean Casey 13-41; BGA — Briston Bennett 12-49, Sean Williams 9-34, Nick Semptimphelter 2-3
FRA — Kingston Gardner 1-53, Jeffery Vercher 1-6; BGA — Garnett Hollis Jr. 3-52, Briston Bennett 3-40, Antonio Stevens 2-27
FRA — Sean Casey 8-17-0-1 — 59; BGA — Nick Semptimphelter 8-17-1-1 — 119