This was more than a playoff football game. It was about the game of life and the challenges we face. The Greers Ferry Lake area and Panther family lost a remarkable individual and community leader early last week and the close-knit town has been in agony ever since.

This was more than a playoff football game. It was about the game of life and the challenges we face. The Greers Ferry Lake area and Panther family lost a remarkable individual and community leader early last week and the close-knit town has been in agony ever since.
But the cardiac kids of Heber Springs gave Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Sergeant and football lover Monty Carmikle a tribute by erasing a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter for a 28-24 victory over the West Fork Tigers in the second round of the 4A state playoffs Friday in West Fork. 
Heroically,  Carmikle’s son Caleb, wearing his dad’s number 81, not only played the entire game at his normal strong safety spot but broke up one of  the Tigers’ final heaves to secure the win, which sends Heber to the third round of the playoffs for the first time in school history.
Panther Coach Steve Janski, who mentioned Carmikle in an emotional prayer following the game, said his team overcame a tragic week. “It’s been a very tragic week for our football team. He was an unbelievable man that did a lot for our program. Our coaching staff and players were very close to him. It’s been an emotional week and to come away with something like this is truly special.”
The comeback wasn’t surprising to Janski, considering what the Panthers have gone through to reach this point. “It started way back in the Marianna game. We know we can comeback and win no matter what the odds are. We’ve proved over and over again that we can persevere in the fourth quarter and we did it again tonight against a very well coached, athletic football team.”
Both teams’ defense bent but didn’t break in the first quarter. West Fork had a 37-yard field goal fall well short while the Panthers had a drive stall out inside the Tiger 16 after running back Braylon Mitchell was stopped inches short on a fourth and a long yard.
After the Tigers ended Heber’s 13-play drive that extended into the second quarter, West Fork covered 84 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown.
Facing a third and 17, quarterback Daniel Holiday found split end Brad Bean down the right sideline for 26 yards and a huge first down at the Tiger 46. Holiday and running back Taylor Genz rotated carries as the Tigers marched into Heber territory and Genz eventually sped around right tackle for a 7-yard touchdown with 5:23 left in the second quarter. Griff Smith added the extra-point, giving the Tigers a 7-0 lead.
West Fork took the ball right back on the Panthers next snap from scrimmage as Isaac Muggy made a leaping interception on quarterback Wes McMullen’s pass down the left sideline.
Starting from its own 32, West Fork only took two plays to capitalize on the turnover as Holiday hit Logan Genz for 26 yards then Holiday kept down the middle and sped through the Panthers secondary for a 42-yard touchdown with 4:34 remaining in the second quarter. Smith added the extra-point, giving the Tigers a 14-0 lead.
West Fork forced a three and out on the Panthers’ next possession before McMullen boomed a 41-yard punt that pinned the Tigers back at their own 15.
West Fork picked up a first down on an option pitch from Holiday to Taylor Genz but fortunes quickly turned as defensive end Billy Grammer picked off a screen pass and returned it 33 yards for a Panther touchdown with 57 seconds left in the first half. Antonio Romero added the extra-point, pulling Heber within a touchdown at 14-7.
But West Fork quickly responded as Holiday broke loose for a 60-yard run down to the Heber 4, setting up a first and goal.
With time running down, Zach Nelson stopped Holiday short of the goal line and a hold pushed the Tigers back to the 17, forcing a field goal attempt. Smith squeaked the 34-yard field goal just over the crossbar, giving West Fork a 17-7 lead at halftime.
Grammer and linebacker Mason Williams converged on  Holiday, throwing him for a 4-yard loss on third and 8 as the Panthers forced a three and out to start the second half. After Hunter Derrick made a fair catch at the Heber 47, the Panthers marched 53 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. Mitchell broke a tackle over the right side for 16 yards then McMullen used a play-action roll out to find David Darrell for 15 yards and a first down at the Tiger 22.
Mitchell took a shotgun draw over right tackle for 9 yards but the Tigers stuffed Mitchell for a short loss on second and short. McMullen kept the Panthers moving with a keeper over left tackle for 4 yards to the West Fork 10.
On first and goal, McMullen fired incomplete then Mitchell picked up 5 yards on second down. On third and goal from the 5, McMullen faked a handoff, rolled left and hit Darrell for a 5-yard touchdown with 6:33 left in the third quarter. Romero added the extra-point, leaving the Panthers with a 17-14 deficit.
Heber held West Fork to a three and out on its next possession as Derrick made a fair-catch at the Heber 21. But the Panthers drive ended in a turnover as McMullen found Keegan McPherson open on the right side but he was immediately hit and the ball squirted free as the Tigers returned the fumble to the Heber 9.
West Fork turned the fumble into points on their first play from scrimmage as Holiday kept on an option around the right side for a 9-yard touchdown with 4:32 remaining in the third quarter. Smith added the extra-point, extending the Tigers’ lead to 24-14.
Darrell alertly recovered an onside kick but the Panthers couldn’t take advantage of the good field position as West Fork allowed a first down before Stormy Bayliss threw McMullen for a 1-yard loss on third and six from the Tiger 33.
Facing a fourth and 7, the Panthers were whistled for a false start then McMullen’s punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback as the Tigers took over at the 20. Linebackers Michael Willen and Dalton Bynum made huge defensive stops to keep the Tigers behind the chains then Mitchell finished off West Fork’s drive by sacking Holiday for an 8-yard loss back to the Tiger 17.
After West Fork’s punt rolled dead at the Heber 44, the Panthers covered 66 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. With 10:48 left in the game, Mitchell broke a tackle over the left side for 12 yards then he added a 2-yard run before Darrell burst over left guard for 5 yards.
On third and 3, Mitchell powered over right tackle for 6 yards and a huge first down. Following a Heber timeout with 8:52 remaining, Mitchell pounded the ball inside the Tiger 10 on five consecutive runs. A facemask penalty was tacked on to the fifth rush, giving the Panthers a first and goal from the Tiger 2.
On first and goal, Mitchell rumbled up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown with 6:55 left in the game. Romero’s line drive extra-point was true, leaving Heber with a 24-21 deficit.
With Heber desperately needing a defensive stop, West Fork helped out with a false start before the Panthers held the Tigers to only five yards, forcing a punt. Derrick returned the punt 5 yards to the Panther 42, where Heber started its game-winning drive that covered 58 yards in 11 plays.
On first down, Mitchell only found 1-yard over left tackle before McMullen hit Nelson for 6 yards on second and 9. Mitchell battled for 4 yards over left guard and a new set of down then McPherson took an end around the left side for 5 yards.
On second and 5 from the Tiger 42, Mitchell took a draw over right tackle for 3 yards then Darrell broke free on a counter for 17 yards and a first down at the West Fork 22.
Mitchell was stuffed on first down then offsetting penalties nullified the next play, leaving Heber with a second and 10 from the Tiger 22.
Mitchell only found 1-yard over the left side, leaving Heber with a third and 9. On third down, McMullen’s pass for McPherson was deflected and intercepted but the Tigers’ were called for pass-interference, giving Heber a first and 10 just outside the Tiger 10.
With 1:08 remaining and the Panthers out of timeouts, McMullen hit Darrell for 5 yards on an out route then Mitchell found the left corner, broke a tackle at the 2 and stretched the ball over the plane of the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown with 29 seconds left in the game. Romero added the extra-point, giving Heber a 28-24 lead.
Janski said the Panthers made some adjustments at halftime that helped boost the offense. “We went inside and made some halftime adjustments, our coaching staff does such a great job with that. Braylon and the offensive line got the adjustments and we got it fixed. We turned the ball over a couple of times but we did what we needed to do to come back and win the game.”
On West Fork’s final chance, Holiday hit Bean for 19 yards to the Tiger 46 but Carmikle broke up Holiday’s next pass then Holiday hit Taylor Genz over the middle for a first down at the Heber 39 as time expired but the officials ruled West Fork called timeout with one second remaining.
After the Panthers supposedly premature celebration ended, Holiday’s final heave was broken up as Heber stormed the field again, this time sure of the upset victory over the 4-4A Conference champions.
Holiday led West Fork (9-2) with 173 yards rushing on 17 attempts, including two touchdowns while Taylor Genz added 69 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown. Mitchell led the way for Heber (8-4) with 32 carries for 163 yards and two scores while Darrell rushed 5 times for 42 yards and caught three passes for 25 yards and a touchdown. McMullen finished 6-of-9 passing for 51 yards and a touchdown.
The Panthers host Newport (9-3) Friday for a quarterfinal playoff tilt at Panther Stadium. Opening kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.