It was the battle both teams had been eyeing since the beginning of the season and the two Class 8A state title contenders put on a show.
The No. 3-ranked South Dade Buccaneers led by 11 points with less than five minutes remaining, but were unable to hold on for a key win over the 7th-ranked Palmetto Panthers, who scored two touchdowns in a 1-minute,
6-second span to come away with a 46-42 win and a district title at Harris Field.
“It is painful any time you prep and get ready knowing you’ve got an opportunity to win a championship district-wise and you want to position yourself so you have a better opportunity in the playoffs,” South Dade head coach Nate Hudson said. “The unfortunate part is we came up short. We’ll learn from this. We’ll get back to the lab and get ourselves ready for the playoffs.”
South Dade (7-2) has lost its last two, but is in position to earn the 5-seed in Region 4 as the top at-large team behind the four district winners and could have a rematch with top-seed Palmetto (8-1) again in the playoffs. Palmetto has won four straight in the series.
The Bucs face Hialeah (6-3) on Friday at Milander to conclude the regular season before beginning their quest in bringing home the school’s second state championship after winning it all in 2013.
“One game at a time, that’s the only way we’re going to be able to climb this mountain and give ourselves an opportunity to compete for a championship,” Hudson said. “You’re going to go through some trials and tribulations. We didn’t expect it in this fashion.”
South Dade led 35-19 with 9:08 left in the third quarter after Kelvin Durham found Javonte Louissaint for a 19-yard touchdown and the Bucs’ biggest lead of the game.
Palmetto surged back with a touchdown pass by Kevin Smith to Bob Golden and Smith ran in another score to cut the deficit to 35-31 with 10:36 remaining in the game.
The Panthers’ momentum came to a halt when Willie Thomas ran into the end zone from 21 yards out, stretching the lead to 42-31 with 7:15 left.
With South Dade’s defense reeling and playing without standout defensive back Jaiden Francois since the first quarter after a controversial ejection, Smith once again struck for a touchdown pass to Mike Jackson and threw a pass to Brashard Smith for a two-point conversion, pulling the Panthers within 42-39 with 4:05 left. It was the closest the Panthers had been since 21-19 in the second quarter.
South Dade’s Chezzy Mathews then coughed up a costly fumble on the ensuing kickoff return and Palmetto took over at the 1.
“Nobody should be pointing the finger at him,” Hudson said. “We had opportunities.”
The Bucs’ defense forced the Panthers into minus-1 yard runs on the first two downs before Kevin Smith’s pass fell incomplete on third down. Instead of attempting a game-tying field goal, the Panthers went for it on fourth down. Smith linked up with a diving Golden for a 3-yard score, his fifth passing touchdown of the game, although the referees missed that the ball hit the ground on the play.
Palmetto led 46-42 after the extra point and South Dade began its drive at their own 45 with 2:52 left.
Durham engineered the Bucs down the field and kept the drive alive on a 4th-and-1 with a three-yard run. There was seven seconds left when Durham took the snap on third down from the 17. He scrambled to his right to avoid the pursuit, but was unable to get a pass off and was tackled for a loss as time expired.
“We wanted to take a shot in the end zone,” Hudson said. “Obviously the execution didn’t go the way we wanted. (Durham) made a decision and we’ll live with it.”
The loss comes a week after a 33-19 defeat to Carol City.
“We are going to have a chip on our shoulders now,” senior offensive lineman Jose Mirabal said. “We were up the whole night, but it just slipped away at the end. It was shocking.”
Francois was ejected in the first quarter for his second unsportsmanlike penalty, but the first was incorrectly assigned to him as Mathews was flagged for excessively celebrating after he scored a touchdown. Despite the plea by the South Dade staff, the ejection stood.
“A lot of misunderstanding and a lack of identity,” Hudson said. “They were thinking after we scored the touchdown they got the numbers confused. Eventually he got a personal foul and somebody (on their sidelines) yelled out that it was his second one, but we can’t really blame it on the situation. We had our opportunities. We had a pretty good lead and we just let it slip away.”
Mirabal is confident the Bucs will bounce back.
“It’s a stepping stone for greatness and we’ll be great in the playoffs,” Mirabal said.
Palmetto (8-1) 12 7 6 21 - 46
South Dade (7-2) 14 14 7 7 - 42
Palmetto - B. Smith 97 kickoff return (run failed)
South Dade - Durham 8 run (Navia kick)
Palmetto - B. Smith 27 pass from K. Smith (run failed)
South Dade - Mathews 19 run (Moreno kick)
Palmetto - Poitier 5 pass from K. Smith (Schmidt kick)
South Dade - Durham 3 run (Navia kick)
South Dade - Wilson 76 interception return (Moreno kick)
South Dade - Louissaint 16 pass from Durham (Navia kick)
Palmetto - Golden 13 pass from K. Smith (pass failed)
Palmetto - K. Smith 1 run (kick failed)
South Dade - Thomas 21 run (Moreno kick)
Palmetto - Jackson 6 pass from K. Smith (B. Smith pass from K. Smith)
Palmetto - Golden 3 pass from K. Smith (Schmidt kick)
RUSHING: Palmetto: Maxwell 10-74, Williams 7-16, Marshall 1-0, Jackson 1--2, K.Smith 4--4. South Dade: Mathews 18-89, Thomas 7-63, Durham 18-60.
PASSING: Palmetto: K.Smith 18-32-2, 263. South Dade: Durham 6-13-2, 86.
RECEIVING: Palmetto: Marshall 2-68, Jackson 3-58, Poitier 6-48, Golden 4-43, B.Smith 2-37, Haggins 1-9. South Dade: Bruce 3-58, Louissaint 1-16, Washington 1-8, Sanders 1-3, Thomas 1-1.