The Sumter High School football team looked dead in the water on two occasions in its game with Carolina Forest on Friday: at halftime when the Panthers held a 14-0 lead and with 2:20 left in the game after it turned the ball over on downs at the Carolina Forest 6-yard line trailing 27-19.
The Gamecocks obviously got themselves out of the first hole because they were able to make it to the second hole. And they got out of that one too, forcing and recovering a fumble on the next play, scoring a touchdown and getting a two-point conversion to force overtime and go on to a 34-27 victory on Sumter Memorial Stadium’s Freddie Solomon Field.
“I have to give our players a lot of credit for not giving in and throwing in the towel,” said Sumter coach Mark Barnes. “They (CF) helped us some and gave us some life in the second half. The most important thing is we didn’t penalize ourselves, put ourselves in bad situations.”
The Gamecocks, who entered the game ranked sixth among 5A teams in the S.C. Prep Media Football Poll, improved to 3-0 on the season and 2-0 in Region VI. Carolina Forest suffered its first loss and falls to 2-1 overall and is now 1-1 in region play.
The Gamecocks trailed 14-0 at halftime but got back in the contest early in the third quarter thanks to two Carolina Forest turnovers in their own territory on its first two possessions.
The Panthers fumbled the football away on third down of their first possession with Sumter recovering at the CF 20. Running back Nathan Harris-Waynick broke off runs of 10 and 9 yards to set up a one-yard touchdown run by quarterback Hayden Vasquez. Placekicker Jehu McCray added the extra point to make it 14-7 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Carolina Forest quarterback Kyle Watkins threw an interception on third down on the next possession with Sumter defensive back Zyeir Gamble intercepting and returning it to the Panthers 45. Sumter scored when Vasquez hit wide receiver Keion Brown on a slant for a 19-yard score. The extra point attempt was blocked this time, leaving the score at 14-13 with 5:40 left in the third quarter.
“We were very opportunistic in the second half, where we were not in the first half,” Barnes said. “We caused mistakes, and we made plays at the end of the game when had to make them.”
The Panthers made it 21-13 when running back Luke Janack broke through a hole in the middle and went 57 yards with 4:13 left in the third quarter.
Sumter needed just five plays to go 66 yards and score. Harris-Waynick, who had just 14 yards in the first half but finished with 162, had a 38-yard run and eventually scored on a four-yard run with 1:53 to go in the quarter. Sumter couldn’t convert on the 2-point conversion, leaving the score at 21-19.
Carolina Forest put together a 12-play, 66-yard scoring drive that ended with Janack scoring on a three-yard run with 7:31 left in the game. However, placekicker James Chadick missed the extra point, leaving the score at 27-19.
The Panthers looked to have the game secured when they turned Sumter away at their 6-yard line on fourth down with 2:20 left in the game and SHS possessing just one timeout. However, Janack fumbled the ball on the next play and the Gamecocks recovered at the 23.
An eight-yard completion from Vasquez to wide receiver Marcus Lane and an 11-yard run by Harris-Waynick set up a first down and goal at the 8 with 38 seconds left.
On third down at the 11, Vasquez threw a short pass to Brown around the 10. Brown worked his way into the end zone with 25 seconds left to make it 27-25. Sumter lined up in its heavy package for the two-point conversion, snapping it directly to Harris-Waynick. He took it straight up the middle to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Carolina Forest won the toss and elected to take the ball second in overtime. Each team has four plays in which to score.
Sumter came out in its heavy package, and on the third snap to him, Harris-Waynick scored from two yards out. McCray added the extra point to make it 34-27.
On the second play of the Panthers’ possession, Janack fumbled the handoff with Sumter recovering to set off a wild celebration.
“It’s got to help you, coming back and winning a game like that,” Barnes said. “You get put in that situation some times, and we’ve had a couple of games in a row where we trailed at halftime. I think it helped us this week, because we’ve done it before.”
The Panthers, who played in the state semifinals last season and finished 12-2, dominated the first half. Watkins scored both of the first-half touchdowns, one a 22-yarder in the first quarter, and the other a 44-yard run in the second quarter.
Carolina Forest had 180 yards of total offense in the first compared to just 17 for Sumter. Watkins ran for 82 yards in the opening half.
The second half was a totally different story. Harris-Waynick came out in the second half running in an aggressive manner. Vazquez completed 16 of 22 passes for 123 yards. Twelve of those completions went to Brown for 81 yards.
Sumter limited Watkins to 16 yards on six carries in the second half. Janack rushed for 112 yards on 13 carries. Ironically, he went over the 100-yard mark on the fumble he lost to set up Sumter’s final scoring possession.
Barnes said one of the differences in the second half was Sumter played a much cleaner game.
“We called the same plays in the second half,” he said. "In the first half, we snapped the ball over the head [of Vasquez on the second play of the game], we were putting it on the ground and we had a lot of 5-yard penalties.
“This week was kind of a carbon copy of last week’s game (a 24-7 win over Rock Hill). In the second half we got going, and we played with much more intensity.”
With just four region games, the win gives Sumter the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed from the region in the state playoffs even if it should drop one of its final two games.
Sumter plays at St. James next week.