September 21, 2019 3:16:07 PM
West Lowndes coach Anthony King started to laugh.
Wandering toward his own 20-yard line following a 35-24 loss to Nanih Waiya, King shouted a few words of encouragement toward the Wildcats coaching staff and quarterback Donovan Turner.
"Man, your boy is tough!" he exclaimed.
Donovan, who finished the day 10 of 14 for 156 yards, added another 54 bruising yards on the ground as he guided the Panthers to victory.
"It's tough hitting that big boy all game," King quipped. "He's just a monster, and he's a true champion."
While Nanih Waiya, the defending Mississippi High Schools Activities Association 1A state champions, took home the victory, Friday was a back-and-forth affair throughout.
After the Warriors jumped to a 13-0 lead courtesy of touchdown runs from Turner and running back Austin Sanders, the Panthers finally caught a break midway through the first quarter.
With the Nanih Waiya kick off sailing down the left hash mark, West Lowndes receiver Jherquaveus Sanders received the ball at his own 15-yard line. Bobbing, weaving and racing down the Panther sideline, Sanders scurried past the Warrior coverage team for West Lowndes' first score of the night.
"We needed something to happen, and Qua stepped up, taking it to the house," King said.
Following the ensuing kickoff, Nanih Waiya running back Devean Turner fumbled on the first play of the drive, and West Lowndes defensive tackle Victor Barnett pounced on the loose ball.
After losing 15 yards on the first play after the fumble, Shelton reared back and delivered a swing pass to junior receiver Melvin Crawford along the Nanih Waiya sideline. Sprinting toward the first down marker, the Warriors defense stopped play as it looked as though Crawford's knee hit the ground. It didn't.
Recognizing the stalled defense, Crawford soared down the hash marks to complete the 51-yard pitch and catch for a touchdown.
Furthering the persistent runs of Friday's affair, Nanih Waiya responded with a five-play, 61-yard drive aided by a facemask penalty to stretch the lead to 27-16 heading into the half.
After deferring the opening kick, West Lowndes scored the lone touchdown of the third quarter when Shelton hit Sanders for a 21-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 4:45 remaining in the frame to bring the Panthers within three.
"He went up and fought hard," King said of the catch.
The Panthers finally distanced themselves in the fourth quarter. After two straight quarterback sneaks from the West Lowndes 1-yard line were stopped short, Turner punched his third effort in for a score before connecting with JT Stokes on the two-point conversion.
With the loss, West Lowndes falls to 4-1 on the season after starting 4-0 for the first time since 2016. Nanih Waiya is now 3-2 with its losses coming to West Lauderdale (4A) and Union (2A).
Encouraged by his team's play following a 2-9 season a year ago, King remains optimistic his team can compete with Mississippi's elite and expects a rematch with Nanih Waiya come playoff time.
"We look forward to seeing them in the playoffs," he said. "I think we can make some adjustments; they can make some adjustments. Should be a good game. We've just got to finish strong now."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.