O’FALLON, Mo. — The tears seemed like they were pouring.
Misty eyes and sniffles permeated the part of the field where the Battle Spartans huddled.
Coach Atiyyah Ellison gathered the team for his usual postgame speech, but it was drowned out by a louder noise — the presentation of the Class 5 District 4 Championship Trophy to the Spartans’ opponent, No. 1 Fort Zumwalt North.
The sound of the presentation seemed to roar and, just like that, it seemed to sink in. After a very long night, the 2019 Battle football season was over.
The No. 2 Spartans (7-4) first dug a hole, then a pit, which formed into the grave of their own season, falling 63-20 to Fort Zumwalt North (11-0). The loss marked only the second time in program history the Spartans have fallen to the Panthers, and it ended Battle’s five-year streak of district titles.
Once it started, the Spartans just couldn’t stop the bleeding Friday. Disheartening performances on both sides of the ball doomed them almost immediately.
After the opening kickoff, Fort Zumwalt North marched 67 yards in just three plays, capping the drive with a 38-yard touchdown score from senior Izaiah Hartzup. The Panthers had 12 offensive drives Friday and scored six times in three plays or less.
As a team, Fort Zumwalt North amassed 360 total yards and scored more points than any opponent the Spartans faced all season.
On the other side of the ball, Battle couldn’t generate much offense, mainly due to a stout performance from the Panthers.
The Spartans averaged just 3.7 yards a play.
“(Fort Zumwalt North) had some kids that were dominant and they played well,” Ellison said. “You know, no fault to anybody or one person, but we just didn’t play very well. And in the playoffs, especially deep in the playoffs, you can’t have an off night.
“We didn’t play our best, and this is the result.”
Turnovers, as they have been all season, were a telling sign of Friday’s game.
The Spartans, who were 5-0 heading into the matchup when winning the turnover battle, forced four fumbles to Zumwalt North’s two, but Battle only recovered one. Sophomore Jakobe Shephard also picked off a Panther shovel pass late in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers recovered both forced fumbles and capitalized, scoring 14 points off the turnovers.
Penalties were also an issue once again for Battle. On the night, the Spartans were called for 10 penalties, costing them 98 yards.
Senior quarterback Harrison Keller said that, in particular, the performance on offense boiled down to a lot of smaller mistakes, including the penalties.
“(It was) just a bunch of little things, putting us in second-and-25s, first-and-30s,” Keller said. “It makes it hard because it’s harder to play our game when we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and pushing ourselves back on the chain.”
While the Spartans spent the entire night trailing, they didn’t look like a team that was down, especially late in the game. Players could be seen chatting and smiling (with some even dancing) late in the second half.
Several seniors as well could be seen arm-in-arm with their teammates, and Keller said that’s because this year’s team has been a family.
“If the person that you see is down, you have to bring them up, because we knew,” Keller said. “We knew coming into the fourth quarter that we weren’t going to win.”
So, Keller said, there was no point in keeping their chins down.
“We might as well take what we can do and make, for us seniors, the last two quarters of our high school career the best.”
In the last minute of Friday’s contest, the Spartans did just that, kicking things off with the Shephard interception. The offense followed it up with a fake run that was flipped to Khaleel Dampier, who hurled a pass 42 yards to Dawson Meierotto. Then, another 11-yard pass to Erich Butler. Then, it was stopped, as zeroes hit the clock.
As the Spartans walked onto the field one last time, one mid-huddle scene stuck out. Senior defensive back Trevonne Hicks, who suited out at halftime due to injury, was smiling, hugging junior quarterback Khaleel Dampier, who was clearly emotional after the loss.
For Hicks, whose night and Battle career ended Friday, the moment was indicative of this season.
“I can honestly say we were a family this year,” Hicks said with a crack in his voice. “Everybody loves each other. As much as we hate each other sometimes, we love each other.
“It’s been an amazing ride, and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it with anyone else.”
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.