Elmore County vs Central Clay

Carmen Rodgers / Tallapoosa Publishers

CJ Wilkes leaps over a Central of Clay County Volunteer on Friday, Sept. 10.

The Central of Clay County Volunteers got all they wanted on the ground on Friday night.

Rushing for over 250 yards with three different running backs scoring at least one touchdown each, Elmore County tried as they might but just couldn’t find an answer for the grass-churning Volunteer rush attack.

A four-touchdown first half deficit proved to be to be the deciding factor as Elmore County High School fell at home 42-7 to the Central of Clay County Volunteers for the team’s second 5A Region 4 loss of the season.

Clay Central leads the 5A Region 4 with two conference wins and looked all the part on Friday night as they controlled both sides of the ball in a 37-point lopsided win. 

“We got something to build on here. We’re not waiting till next year. People may be down on us but in our locker room, we’re not down ourselves, we’re gonna keep working,” coach Jordan Cantrell said. “These young guys that we played tonight see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

A first possession defensive stop looked promising for the Panthers and its mostly packed-out stadium as the undefeated Clay Central Volunteers trotted off the field after a stifling three-and-out.

Elmore got the ball for the second time of the quarter and decided to do something with it. Quarterback Payton Stephenson rolled out from the pocket to his left and saw Jabari Murphy streaking down the sideline with a defender lagging on his toes. The quarterback launched a deep ball to the sideline where the running back/receiver dual threat hauled in the catch for around 50 yards. Though the drive fizzled out on a turnover of possessions, the Panthers saw some early success in the passing game. 

The Panthers wanted a defensive stop following the turnover and decided to all-out blitz the Volunteer quarterback. A quick read and dump off to running back Terry Heflin and a convoy of linemen allowed the speedster to blow through the defense and take the ball to the endzone from 40 yards out, the first of multiple rushing touchdowns for Clay Central. 

Elisha McNeil was the star of the show for the Volunteers, rushing for multiple 40-yard dashes and three or four on-the-ground touchdowns to add to his resume. The 6’2 senior blasted out of the line of scrimmage like a cannon on every given touch and averaged nearly 10 yards a carry against the Panther defensive line. 

After going down 28-0 in the half, Elmore County’s offense woke up and caught fire in the third quarter with a 60-yard touchdown drive to put the Panthers on the board for the first time of the night. Quarterback, punter, cornerback and kick returner Payton Stephenson returned a Volunteer kickoff to the 40-yard line for the Panthers best field position of the day.

After a previous QB read was blown up for a loss of 6, Stephenson made the right read on the same play call and turned up the field for a gain of 14 to move the chains. Finally sustaining some success on the ground similar to Clay Central, Elmore County drove up the field with a couple 4-yard carries by Murphy, a QB rush for five yards up the middle, and a diving catch by Blank Robinson for the Panthers’ first red-zone drive thus far into the game. Stephenson tossed up a tight spiral to a free-running Murphy at the pylon in the left corner of the endzone, but the ball slid through the sophomore’s hands and landed incomplete. Rushing to the two-yard line on the right hash, a Volunteer unsportsmanlike conduct pushed the Panthers even closer to the goal line, after which No. 21 CJ Wilks blasted past for his second touchdown of the season.

“We had no senior on the offensive line. We all had all 10th graders on offensive line tonight so center guard and tackle, all 10th graders,” Cantrell said. “We had a new starting center he’s never played a varsity game. We got beat but, this is something to build on, something for these guys to hold their heads high, a team that is regarded a top team in the state.”

The ensuing kickoff was returned 95 yards to the house by McNeil to hush the celebrating Elmore crowd and put the Volunteers up 42-7. Though the game was separated by more than 40 points and had been that way for a while, fans and members of the Elmore community stuck around and continued to cheer in support for their team despite the deficit.

Elmore’s offense once again caught a stoke and began moving the ball up the field up after the kick return. The Volunteers rushed the ball to the three-yard line before being stopped on four consecutive goal line stands and coughing the ball up on a turnover of downs. Maybe not a touchdown, but the Panthers offense did their job and moved the ball down the field with consistency on back-to-back red zone drives.

A little crowd fun ensued when both team’s bands had a sound off and filled the stadium with cheers for each other’s percussionists as then opposing bandmates banged the high-pitched drums in a showdown style match. A nice gesture by two opposing fanbases in such a landslide match.

Murphy would shine for the Panthers one more time in a last-possession touchdown drive during the final three minutes of play. Stephenson manned the offense to midfield and then threw a 40-yard bomb to the receiver in one-on-one coverage to put the team’s second score on the board.

“It’s just self-confidence, if you know that you can outman the defender that’s on you, just throw it up and go get it,” Murphy said after the touchdown pass.

Stephenson and Murphy matched a few times on deep balls in the second half and Murphy seemed to be the go-to guy on the receiving end for the quarterback.

“We got a good bond, it’s just a close bond since I don’t know long how long. We just got a good connection; he knows to throw it up to me and I’ll go get it.”

“The offensive line protected well and let’s give them credit for that. Jabari had a great night; he’s really stepped up on defense,” Cantrell said. “Payton at quarterback is really doing some things…we’re proud of our guys. We’re gonna come back to work for Tallassee, don’t know the outcome of that game, but we’re not giving up man. We’re gonna keep fighting.”