The celebration started before the game clock ran down to 0:00.
When Flagler Palm Coast linebacker Rodney Hill intercepted a Marcus Stokes pass and returned it 97 yards for a touchdown with 1:16 remaining, he essentially iced the Bulldogs’ 42-28 victory over Nease and clinched the fourth district championship in school history.
“It feels amazing,” Hill said, after the final buzzer sounded, the teams shook hands and the players drenched head coach Robert Paxia with a cooler of water.
“I knew I had to get into the end zone,” Hill said. “I didn’t want it to be close. He threw the ball, I picked it off and took it to the house. There was no one in front of me.”
With the home win on Friday, Oct. 14, the Bulldogs improved to 5-3 and 2-0 in the three-team District 4-4S. The district title assures the Bulldogs a spot in the playoffs.
It is the school’s fourth district championship since Bunnell High became Flagler Palm Coast in 1974. Bunnell won a district title in 1973.
Paxia has now been a part of three of FPC’s district championships. The Bulldogs won when he was a player in 2005 and 2007. They last won in 2017 — two years before the current seniors arrived on campus — when then head coach Travis Roland led FPC to an undefeated regular-season record.
“To me this is huge,” said Paxia, still soaked from the drenching. “I played ball here. I still live in the house where I lived when I played ball. I have a lot of mementos, a lot of memories about this place.”
The game was a battle of wills as well as a battle of quarterbacks. Future University of Florida quarterback Marcus Stokes passed for 252 yards and four touchdowns. He was also picked off twice — Hill’s 97-yard pick-six and Ely Gilyard’s interception with 45 seconds remaining which allowed the Bulldogs to run out the clock and let the celebration begin in earnest.
FPC quarterback D.J. Murray accounted for 233 yards of offense. He ran for three touchdowns and passed for another. Paxia said he had been protecting Murray since the junior sprained an ankle on Sept. 9 at Spruce Creek. For this game, Paxia and Murray said, the “handcuffs” were off.
“We tried to protect him all year,” Paxia said. “We’ve been trying to get him back to full speed. Tonight’s probably one of the first nights in a long time where he’s been full go. I told him the handcuffs were off, let’s go win the game.”
Murray ran for 125 yards. After putting the Bulldogs ahead 7-0 with a 5-yard scoring pass to Gavin Winkler, he tied the score at 14-14 with a 14-yard touchdown run, tied it again 21-21 with a 17-yard TD run and put FPC up for good at 35-28 with a 4-yard score with 8:27 left.
“I did what I had to do to lead the team and come out with a victory, because this was for the district title,” Murray said. “This is a big moment in history. And it's just a blessing to be a part of this team.”
“This is a big moment in history. And it's just a blessing to be a part of this team.”
— D.J. MURRAY
Since Murray’s designed runs have been limited this season, he said the Panthers seemed to focus on running back Marcus Mitchell, who ran for 81 yards and a touchdown.
“They weren’t respecting me a lot,” Murray said. “So I was just making good reads, and the O-line was executing. Coach Paxia was making great calls, and it all just flowed.”
The lead exchanged hands five times, which did not surprise the Bulldogs. Although Nease has won just one game this season, the Panthers have scored 20 or more points five times with Stokes running the offense.
Hill not only clinched the win with his interception return, he also ran for a first down on a fake punt in the second quarter to set up the Bulldogs’ second touchdown.
"Our kids never gave up in the game. That’s the belief in the program, the belief in what you’re doing. There were tons and tons of times we could have just hung it up, but our kids were like, ‘It’s our turn. We worked too hard, and we expect to win.’”
— ROBERT PAXIA, FPC football coach
“I told the kids, when you’re trying to accomplish something that has been done rarely, you can’t be scared of the moment,” Paxia said. “That’s why we were so aggressive in the first half. We were aggressive the whole game.
“We talked about playing through adversity, understanding they were going to score, we were going to score, they were going to get stopped, we were going to get stopped. How you handle each (scenario), that’s going to determine (the outcome). Our kids never gave up in the game. That’s the belief in the program, the belief in what you’re doing. There were tons and tons of times we could have just hung it up, but our kids were like, ‘It’s our turn. We worked too hard, and we expect to win.’”
The Panthers were on the doorstep of tying the score for a fifth time when Hill dropped back in coverage and intercepted Stokes’ third-down pass, returning it for a two-touchdown lead. Nease had just converted a 4th-and-1 by inches to keep the drive alive.
“I’m very proud of my boys,” said senior linebacker Ashton Bracewell, whose job on the play was to spot Stokes, making sure the four-star recruit was not going to try to run the ball in himself.
“Colby Cronk tipped the ball and allowed Rodney to get in position to catch the ball,” Bracewell said. “We can’t forget about Cronk.”
Cronk, a sophomore defensive end, had two sacks in the game but went down in the final minute with a knee injury.
“Without him, we might not win the game,” Bracewell said.” We don’t know what would have happened.”