No. 4 Dwyer 21, No. 9 Royal Palm Beach 16: Panthers clinch playoff spot
Saturday, November 03, 2012
by Jeff Greer
Maybe it was because they played on Saturday. Or maybe it was the postseason implication -- whichever team won in Dwyer and Royal Palm Beach's much-anticipated district finale would make the playoffs.
For whatever reason, the hits seemed louder, the plays bigger, the clock slower.
Yet for all the hype around the game, the two elements that made Dwyer a preseason favorite came through for the No. 4 Panthers when they needed them most, as their star receivers and speedy defensive line carried them to an intense 21-16 win at No. 9 Royal Palm Beach that clinched the last playoff spot up for grabs in Palm Beach County.
The performance was a far cry from the ugly 28-12 loss against District 13-7A rival (and now champion) Atlantic two weeks ago, which stunned the area football community and elevated Atlantic to a statewide reputation. It also left Dwyer (8-1) in a spot it hasn't seen in a while and woke up the Panthers, coach Jack Daniels said.
"It's a relief," Daniels said. "It's a great game for us going into the playoffs. It had everything in it."
Daniels is right about that. From Dwyer quarterback Rob Nittolo's three long touchdown passes and Clint Stephens' multiple fingertip catches to Royal Palm Beach's frantic rallies to each Dwyer charge, the district rivals provided what the fans in the crowded stands hoped for.
Defensive end Mark Kelly fittingly pushed Dwyer into the postseason with a sack, the third of the night for the Panthers' ferocious defensive line, and junior receiver Clint Stephens helped Dwyer whittle away the clock and preserve the win.
The blazing-fast Stephens finished with three catches for 44 yards and a touchdown, but his final two catches, for gains of 7 and 9 yards, picked up vital first downs that kept Royal Palm's defense on the field.
Fellow receivers Ezra Saffold (87 yards, two touchdowns) and Johhnie Dixon (44 yards) each got loose in other critical spots. Nittolo used a quick three-step drop and fast release to limit the over-the-top coverage Royal Palm's safeties could provide for their cornerbacks, which in turn left Dwyer's wideouts in one-on-one situations.
They usually win those.
"They're going to make plays," Royal Palm Beach coach Willie Bueno said of Dwyer's receivers. "They're great players and they make plays."
Dwyer jumped out to a 14-0 lead on Royal Palm Beach (5-3), but the Wildcats would keep fighting back. Jimmy Moreland's punt block and 22-yard touchdown return made it 14-10, and a 43-yard drive in the fourth quarter cut Dwyer's 21-10 lead to 21-16.
But Royal Palm Beach's defense couldn't slow down Stephens, and that left just enough time for Kelly and his fellow defensive linemen to make one more big play against desperate Royal Palm, which had too little time and too much field to make up.