The bus trip was a little shorter after having to make the spring trip to Wauchula last year. This time, the Bartow High School football team would head west on Highway 60, stopping at the next town over. The annual spring game would be played in Mulberry.
It was a warm Friday night and those who would postpone their Memorial Day holiday plans until Saturday would get a great opportunity to follow up on last week’s Orange and White scrimmage. The Bartow crowd was close in number to the supporters of the home team.
Mulberry received the opening kickoff and started a four-minute drive that consisted entirely of running plays. The drive was helped by a Bartow face mask penalty, but an attempted field goal missed the mark. Bartow’s offense could do little on the first possession as a holding call wiped out a potential first down on the second play and, despite a Mulberry offsides, faced a fourth-and-short. A fumbled exchange handed Mulberry the ball at the 28. The Panthers scored on the first play, a 28-yard pass, and the home team led 6-0.
Things started looking up quickly. A Tyreese Cruz kickoff return to the 42 gave Bartow decent field position. Dimitri Leverett showed good moves on an 18-yard gain followed by a 20-yard Monte Bell blast up the middle. Two plays later, Leverett headed toward the end zone and a mad scramble ensued with DJ Daughtery handing the ball to the officials for a Bartow touchdown. The run for the extra point came up short and it was a tie game.
The Bartow kickoff was short and between Mulberry players who didn’t react quickly enough. Marqus Cooper jumped on it for Bartow and the offense was back on the field. Cruz ran right at the defense to gain 17 and the Jackets were within striking distance within a few plays. Leverett tossed a screen pass to Daughtery before a couple of running plays set up a first and goal. Shaquille King got the call and powered into the end zone in the waning seconds of the opening period.
Mulberry punted to the 8 yard line and the offense returned, but not before a delay of game penalty moved the ball to the 4. After no gain, an option play went terribly wrong as the ball lay in the end zone before a Mulberry defender smothered it for a Panther touchdown. The extra point was good and Bartow was again trailing. The Jackets’ drive took the team to the water break, facing a fourth and 5 near midfield. The effort came up a little short and the defense returned. They were on the field for one play when Phillip Schoch recovered a Mulberry fumble. The offense capitalized on the opportunity as Cruz carried the final eight yards. Leverett tacked on the extra point to put Bartow up 20-13, which would be the score at the end of the half.
With Bartow getting the ball to start the final half, the offense picked up 57 in six plays before Leverett’s keeper took him to the end zone. Devon McCoy came in at quarterback and handed to Cruz for the two-point conversion. The defense spent a few plays on the field before forcing a turnover. The offense took over on the 27 with what would become a 12-play drive. The biggest gainer was a 25 yard pass play when Leverett dropped straight back and found Daughtery open. Leverett had just missed a connection with Tre Jordan earlier, but Jordan would be his target to bring Bartow into the end zone from the 14 to end the drive. Isaac Martinez kicked the extra point and Bartow led 35-13.
A Panther running touchdown tightened things up, but Bartow’s offense went to work. A drive from the late stages of the third quarter to the early part of the fourth stalled and the Jackets had their first punting opportunity. Defender Brandon Carey nearly caught the quarterback on a passing play and then did record a sack on the next attempt. Shortly after, Mulberry again put the ball on the turf and an alert Bartow defender jumped on it. Troy Jones scampered for 36 yards before disaster struck again. A Bartow fumble was picked up by a Mulberry defender who went 77 yards for a Panther touchdown. Suddenly, it was a one-score game at 35-27 with less than six minutes to play. Clock management became a key element and Bartow was able to do that, holding on for the victory.
It was a joyous bus ride back to the home locker-room, but there were some lessons learned in the process. For head coach Jason Butler, it was his first in the new position. “It’s fun to get it over with,” he said. “We saw some tremendous things tonight, but we had two fumbles that went for touchdowns that made the game closer than it should have been. There was some stupid stuff that happened. We need to get the players to know when they need to put an opponent away.”
The fans got a good sample of what lies ahead as the team is remaining true to keeping fairly basic, using two defenses and fewer than 12 offensive play variations.
Unofficial statistics showed more than 300 yards rushing on 50 attempts and team passing 8-12 for 97 yards. There were 19 first downs.
For now, the idea is to keep the momentum through the period leading up to the start of the 2013 season. There were a number of positives to take from the past two weeks. The excitement builds for the next game, a contest at Frostproof in late August. The coaching staff and the players will keep their commitment to getting back to being The Home of Champions.