By Gabriel Stovall
RIVERDALE, Ga. — If on Friday night, after Starr’s Mill’s 43-25 win over Drew, Chad Phillips could’ve taken a poll of the same Starr’s Mill fans who scratched their heads at his return to an old offensive philosophy this season, the results would be interesting to behold.
The Starr’s Mill Panthers showed up to Southern Crescent Stadium in Riverdale Friday night and delivered a thorough dismantling of Drew’s defense, option style, to the tune of 467 rushing yards.
Sophomore B-Back Rico Frye tallied 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Senior tailback Dion Munerlyn added 178 yards to the total, and more than just gashing the Titans’ defensive line, the Starr’s Mill offense also dominated time of possession, keeping off the field a Drew juggernaut that came in averaging 48.5 points per game.
With the win, the Panthers secured their first 5-0 start since the 2010 team — Phillips’ first as head coach — that came a game short of winning a state championship. But making the win even more impressive is the fact that Starr’s Mill did it:
- Without arguably its best player. Senior slash guy Satchell Goodrich was out nursing an ankle injury. Phillips said the WR/DB should return to action next week against rival McIntosh.
- With Frye going over 200 yards rushing for the third consecutive week.
- With the gutsy play of a sophomore quarterback in Joey Deluca who, this time last year, wasn’t even tabbed to be the expected starter.
- Against a team it had never before beaten. Drew came into Friday’s Region 4-AAAAA matchup 3-0 all time against the Panthers, including a 67-43 win in last year’s shootout — which was part of the reason, Phillips acknowledges, Starr’s Mill underwent a playbook overhaul.
“We went back to the jet wing-T this year to try and keep the ball away from some of the explosive offenses we knew we’d play this year, and our team, they did a great job of executing tonight,” Phillips said.
And to think, if certain fans, parents and even a couple of players had their way, the switch — and all the productivity that has come with it — may not have happened.
“We were in the spread, power read kind of offense,” Phillips said. “What Auburn runs. But our school opened in 1997 and two of our coaches are still here from day one, so we went back to what we ran the first 12,13 years of our school history.”
And as mentioned, the change was met with mixed reviews.
“The kids were excited,” Phillips said. “But we lost a couple of players who said, ‘Coach, I want to throw it around more.’ In fact our quarterback that was coming back transferred and went to a different school. Some of our parents were very unhappy about it as well, but I think now they’re believing.”
If they aren’t, perhaps they should take a closer look.
As the Panthers prepare to jump into the teeth of their schedule with games against rival McIntosh, Mundy’s Mill and undefeated Northgate over the next four weeks, they find themselves in prime position to make their October 30 tilt with Northgate the de-facto subregion championship game.
Phillips’ bunch is giving up just 18.6 points per game on defense — down considerably from last year at this time when they’d surrendered close to 35 points a contest. And although Starr’s Mill isn’t slinging the ball around the field with regularity, it has actually seen an increase in per-game points production through five games this season.
Last year at this time, Starr’s Mill was scoring 33.8 points per game. This year, it’s a shade under 36.
The offense kept Drew off balance all night with misdirection, a variation of jet sweeps and timely pass playaction that, if not for a few drops and overthrows, could’ve stretched the final margin even more.
But it all started with the production of Frye and Munerlyn.
“The production from those two, it’s what we’ve been hoping for,” Phillips said. “The offense is built around the B-back. If we can get the B-back going, then your jet sweeps start going, your buck sweep, then play action. It’s all like an inter-working engine. The first part’s gotta go to get the wheels in motion.”
All told, the Panthers find themselves playing their best ball in the last five years, and while it may serve as a slight surprise to some, Frye said the success has been a season long expectation.
“Oh yeah, (going undefeated) was a goal since the beginning of the spring,” Frye said. “We’ve come out, worked early in the mornings in the off seasons so we could be in the driver’s seat, like coach said. We want to go 10-0 like the 2010 team, and right now we’re looking good for that. Right now we’re on the right path.”
To be sure, Starr’s Mill’s success isn’t exclusively traceable to X’s and O’s. Phillips is quick to compare this team to the 2010 team in one particularly key area.
“We’ve just got great senior leadership this year,” he said. “You know, at Starr’s Mill sometimes it kind of goes up and down. The 2010 team had unbelievable seniors. But this group, they’ve worked together and played together since they were little, like six and seven years old. They’ve come through our middle school program, and they’re just a close, tight bunch, and they’re passionate about the game and want to be successful.
“And that’s kind of different from last year’s senior class.”
Phillips calls his players on “the line of scrimmage” a “pretty old and veteran” group. But the playmakers like Frye, Deluca, receiver Brandon Rew and running back Nick Brown are all sophomores, which bodes well for Starr’s Mill’s future — especially since these athletes remind Phillips of some past Panther stars.
“Our skill guys are real young, except for Dion (Munerlyn) who’s a senior. And he’s a heck of a player,” Phillips said. “But when you ask me two years from now, I’ll probably be able to say, ‘Yeah, Rico looks a lot like (former Georgia Tech player) Zach Laskey, and Joey’s a lot like Adam Holley who played at West Georgia, and Brandon Rew is a lot like Jeff Greene who’s up at Ohio State.”
In other words — potential game changers and program builders.
But for all the talk of offensive schemes, defensive philosophies and player comparisons between this group and the squad that represents the pinnacle of Starr’s Mill football lore, Frye said he wants to bring one more component of this team’s success to the table for discussion.
“We got heart,” Frye said. “Our whole team’s got heart. We’re not afraid to play anybody. And whoever is in front of us, we’re gonna attack them every game. Our coaches put that in us. No matter who we play, we’re going to come out, do our thing and we feel we can win any game. And so far it’s coming true.”