Prior to Friday's season opener, Heber Springs Coach Steve Janski said Pottsville junior quarterback Michael Perry would be the best signal caller the Panthers would face this season.
Perry lived up to his billing, running for three touchdowns and passing for another as the No. 5 ranked Apaches scored 28 unanswered points while defeating No. 8 Heber Springs 35-14 in a clash between defending conference champions at Panther Stadium.
Heber jumped out to leads of 6-0 and 14-7 but allowed Pottsville to score with eight seconds remaining in the first half for a tie game and the Panthers never recovered.
"I was very disappointed in that last drive [before halftime] defensively," said Janski. "I thought we did a great job with our game plan and our scheme was great in the first quarter and then we just lost our composure on defense right before the half and we also lost our composure in the second quarter offensively. We jumped offside, didn't get the snap count right…We just really hurt ourselves. And then in the second half I felt that Pottsville wanted it more than we did. We've got to go back to work," added Janski.
Heber received the opening kickoff and marched into Apache territory, using a variety of quick passes and strong runs before stalling out.
On second and 17 from the Pottsville 46, junior quarterback Michael Kramer hooked up with senior running back Gunner Nelson streaking down the left sideline for 16 yards, which set
up a first-down run of four yards by Nelson.
But, with the help of a false start penalty, Pottsville's defense began to stiffen and eventually held on downs. Facing a fourth and 11, Kramer scrambled to his right and found receiver Micah Dew in the back, right corner of the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown that was nullified because Kramer was past the line of scrimmage when he released the pass.
The Panthers snatched the ball right back when Pottsville, running out of a Dead-T formation, fumbled its first exchange and senior defensive end Harley Hooten recovered at the Apache 28. Heber took the lead three plays later when senior all-purpose back Clint Ligon found room up the middle, side-stepped a defender with an ankle-breaking cut at the 12-yard line and raced into the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown with 5:14 left in the first quarter. The PAT was blocked, leaving Heber's lead at 6-0.
Heber forced a three and out on the Apaches' second possession and moved near midfield before a third and 12 fumble by Ligon, who caught a middle screen then tried to leap over half the Pottsville team. While gliding through the air, the ball was jarred loose and Pottsville recovered at the 47.
The Apaches covered 53 yards in 11 plays for the go-ahead score. Backed up on fourth and 21, Perry dropped deep in the backfield, escaped pressure and hit the left sideline for a 36-yard touchdown, outrunning several players in close pursuit. Corey McKown added the PAT, giving the Apaches a 7-6 lead with 8:33 left in the second quarter.
Page 2 of 3 - With Pottsville driving after Heber went three and out, the Panthers forced another fumble, which senior linebacker Micah Dew recovered at the Heber 28. Two plays later, Heber reclaimed the lead as sophomore running back Chandler Marquardt ripped off 30 yards up the middle, setting up his first high school touchdown.
On first and 10, Marquardt broke two tackles as he worked his way to the right sideline, where he turned on the burners before dodging a defender at the 10-yard line on his way to a 42-yard touchdown. Kramer faked a handoff and ran untouched over left tackle for two more points on the conversion, giving Heber a 14-7 lead with 4:27 left in the first half.
Pottsville, which won the 4-4A conference championship last season, responded with a 14-play, 70-yard drive that included three third down conversions. With the clock ticking under a minute and the Apaches facing a third and 29 from the Panther 44, Perry found running back Tyler Weaver open down the right seam for a first down at the Heber 15.
Perry spiked the ball with 26.2 seconds then he scrambled for nine yards. Following a timeout, Perry hooked up with receiver Luke McAnulty for a 6-yard touchdown with eight seconds left in the first half. McKown added the PAT, tying the score at 14-14 at halftime.
The Apaches did most of their damage in the first half with Perry freelancing out of a shotgun formation but they went back to their bread and butter in the second half, running the Dead-T while winning the battle in the trenches.
Pottsville opened the second half with a 12-play, 56-yard scoring drive. On third and 9 from the Heber 24, Perry connected with McKown, who made a diving catch for 22 yards and a first down deep in Panther territory. The Panthers held tight on first and goal from the 2 but Weaver found the end zone from one yard out on second down. With 7:33 remaining in the third quarter, McKown's extra-pint sailed wide left, leaving the Apaches' lead at 20-14.
Heber, which won the 2-4A conference last season, reached Pottsville territory twice in the second half but never penetrated further than the 30-yard line. Meanwhile, the Apaches continued to roll despite heavy rain drenching the turf field.
Late in the third quarter, Perry scored on an option keeper, racing 40 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown, capping an 8-play, 84-yard drive. Perry kept over right side for two more points on the conversion, boosting Pottsville's lead to 28-14.
The Panthers quickly moved into Apache territory but a mishandled snap and sack cost Heber a total of 23 yards and forced a punt.
Just past the midway point of the fourth quarter, Pottsville put the game out of reach with a sack, which forced a fumble that was returned 17 yards to the Heber 26. The Apaches scored on the next play as Weaver broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and sprinted up the middle for a 26-yard touchdown with 4:31 left in the game. McKown added the PAT, setting the final at 35-14.
Page 3 of 3 - Marquardt led the Panthers with 13 carries for 148 yards and one touchdown, while Nelson added 10 rushing attempts for 44 yards and one reception for 16 yards. Ligon had 35 yards rushing and a touchdown on three carries and he made three receptions for 21 yards. Kramer finished 6-of-18 for 45 yards in his first start for the Panthers.
Nelson led the Panther defense with nine tackles, including seven solo, while senior linebacker Wade Gilbrech followed with eight tackles and senior linebackers Josh Hudson and Dew each contributed six stops.
Perry ran 16 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns, while completing 7-of-14 passes for 99 yards and a score. "I don't want to take anything away from the rest of their team but Micheal Perry is a special athlete and he showed that tonight," said Janski. "He made us look silly a lot of times. He is a player and he is just a junior so we are going to have to see him again next year."
The Panthers (0-1) visit Searcy to battle Harding Academy (1-0) on Friday at 7 p.m.