Russellville falls in close football battle with top-ranked Mars Hill

The Russellville Golden Tigers and Mars Hill Bible School Panthers met in Florence for a clash of football unbeatens on Friday, and the two programs battled to the end for the victory.

In front of a packed crowd in what was described as maybe the biggest football game ever held on the campus of Mars Hill, the No. 1 in Class 3A Panthers got a 27-24 non-region win over 5A RHS.

Russellville had a 17-13 lead at the half, and the Golden Tigers were on top by a score of 24-19 until the Panthers took the lead with 4:31 remaining in the contest. Historically, the two successful schools have met on the football field twice with Mars Hill taking last season’s game 31-30 at RHS in what is fast becoming a respectful rivalry.

Russellville got the ball first Friday night and marched to the Mars Hill 12-yard-line until a first down fumble of a pitch turned the ball over to the Panthers. The RHS defense forced a punt on the opening Mars Hill possession and then the Golden Tigers’ offense went back to work.

A fourth down pass completion from Harrison Burch to Cash Crumpton kept the drive alive, and Russellville was able to get to the Panthers’ five-yard-line before the drive stalled and Manny Martinez was called upon to kick a 21-yard field goal that put the team up 3-0 with 2:08 left in the first quarter.

It took only one play from scrimmage for RHS to get the ball back when a Mars Hill pass receiver was hit hard and fumbled the ball to the Golden Tigers. Three running plays followed, and Cam Phinizee scored the first touchdown of the contest on a 41-yard carry to put Russellville up 10-0 after the Martinez PAT kick.

Mars Hill quickly answered as quarterback Griffin Hanson weaved through and then outraced the defense on a 63-yard touchdown run on the first play of the next possession. A missed extra-point kick made the score 10-6 with five seconds left in the first quarter.

The Panthers took a 13-10 lead with a 41-yard touchdown run before Phinizee scored his second touchdown of the game, this time on a 6-yard rush with just over three minutes until the half.

The two schools traded punts during the third period until a Mars Hill fumble was recovered by Russellville’s JT Hill at the Panthers’ six-yard-line. Burch scored a 3-yard touchdown on a quarterback keeper a couple of plays later to put RHS up 24-13 with 45 seconds left on the third quarter clock.

Mars Hill pulled to within five points with 7:49 left in the game on a 23-yard touchdown pass that was followed by an unsuccessful try for two points. Then, with 4:31 to go in the contest, the Panthers took the lead for the final time with a 48-yard touchdown pass from Hanson to Tanner Caudle that was followed by a two-point conversion.

“I thought we played well for a half,” Russellville head coach John Ritter said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t do a great job of coming out of the half with some adjustments on both sides.”

Russellville (5-1) will return to region play next with a trip to Brewer, and the Golden Tigers will look to get back to their winning ways.

“It’s about how we are going to respond,” Ritter explained. “It’s easy to have a great attitude and go out and do all the things that you’re supposed to do when it’s easy. Our backs aren’t against the wall. We got beat by the No. 1 ranked team in 3A, 27-24.”