All Battle wanted was a chance for revenge against the team that ended its season the previous year, but by halftime the Spartans were down 28-14.
It was just the third time all season that the Spartans trailed at the break, but they were 1-1 in the previous two games. They had kept the Panthers from a three-touchdown lead, scoring on a quick, four-play drive that was capped by a 7-yard touchdown by quarterback Khaleel Dampier.
Still, Battle needed a touchdown to start the second half.
The Spartans had kept a clean sheet on offense in the first half — no penalties, no fumbles, no turnovers — but within seconds of the clock restarting, that sheet became muddied. On a Dampier handoff the ball slipped loose for Battle’s first fumble of the game. The Spartans recovered but lost 4 yards.
The next play, a high snap caused another fumble and set Battle back 11 more yards. When Dampier converted on third-and-25 with a 30-yard run, Fort Zumwalt North was called for holding, but a personal foul on the Spartans offset the penalties and repeated the down. Battle lost 3 yards on the repeat and punted on fourth-and-28.
“It’s mistakes,” coach Atiyyah Ellison said. “That’s all it is. They’re kids, I get it, but we didn’t do enough to win.”
Just as Ellison predicted, mistakes determined the game as Battle fell 35-14 against Zumwalt North in the MSHSAA Class 5 quarterfinals. It was the second straight year the Panthers have knocked the Spartans out of postseason play.
Ellison took some responsibility for the loss, citing the fact that he’s the one who decides how his team prepares for each game. Obviously, something about this week’s preparation hadn’t quite clicked when Battle (8-2) reached game time.
“It’s one of those soul-searching things and it’s like I have to look back on my preparation for the game,” he said. “I gotta take ownership for the loss at the end of the day. For whatever reason, we weren’t ready, so I got to take ownership for that.”
Zumwalt North (11-1) largely stuck to the same patterns and plays it used when it played at Battle in Week 1. The Panthers accumulated over 400 offensive yards on the ground, while going just 1-for-2 and 12 yards passing.
Quarterback Jack Newcomb and running backs Tyler Oakes and Chris Futrell split most of the carries for Zumwalt North — as they did in Week 1— with Futrell scoring three of the team’s five touchdowns. Newcomb and Oakes scored the other two.
“One major thing was the tackling,” Ellison said. “We couldn’t tackle or wouldn’t tackle. That was the difference in the game to me.”
Despite Battle’s recent success forcing turnovers, the Spartans only managed to recover two of the six balls the Panthers coughed up on offense, both in the fourth quarter. The turnovers did little to help Battle’s struggling offense.
The Spartans had just lost the ball prior to the two recoveries. In the process they threw away the minuscule amount of momentum provided by a 30-yard Dampier run near the end of the third quarter to put Battle in Zumwalt North’s territory. When the Spartans got the ball back, they converted once before fumbling again and then punting.
Battle’s two touchdowns came from running back Rickie Dunn and Dampier in the first and second quarters, respectively. The Spartans had 147 rushing yards in the first half, but only added 65 in the second half.
“(Zumwalt North) didn’t do anything different,” Ellison said. “They were who we thought they were, and we just did not play well for whatever reason.”
Gerry Marteen Jr. had a quiet showing by his standards, only making one run over 50 yards. Just as the defense had trouble tackling, Battle’s O-line had trouble blocking, offering little wiggle room for its usually dominant run game.
Despite feeling like his team had reverted to some of its start-of-the-season tendencies, Ellison was still proud of his team for the effort they put in. The 35-14 loss was still a significant improvement over Battle’s 63-20 loss against Zumwalt North that ended its 2019 season.
“They fought the whole game,” he said. “I don’t think anybody laid down to quit.”
Ellison’s biggest hope for the upcoming offseason is that his returning players will get to spend plenty of time in the weight room, something the team missed out on this year because of COVID-19.
Then, maybe next year Battle will find its elusive, Ellison-approved four-quarter game.