Tigers 37, Panthers 7
Difference maker: Will Thomas tallied 162 yards on 20 carries, including touchdown runs from 7, 20, 38 and 1 yards out. His 20-yarder pushed Commerce’s edge back to 17-7 after Clinch County’s lone score.
Stat that matters: Commerce scored its final 20 points off Clinch County’s three turnovers.
Turning point: Grant Mayberry’s 61-yard kickoff return following the Panthers’ only touchdown set up Thomas’ 20-yard touchdown run on the next play.
Who’s next: Commerce (9-2) welcomes Calhoun County, a 13-12 victor against Mitchell County, in next Friday’s Class A Public quarterfinals
COMMERCE — Once Will Thomas found running room, there was no stopping him.
Thomas’ combination of power and speed led a bruising ground game as Commerce defeated Clinch County 37-7 in the first round of the Class A Public state football playoffs Friday night at Ray Lamb Stadium.
Thomas totaled 162 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries as the Tigers picked up their first playoff victory since 2009.
“We wanted to do it for our seniors tonight,” said Thomas, a 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore fullback and linebacker. “The last three years we went out in the first round, and we really want to make a big run this year. And we’re going to do everything we can to make a big run.”
Commerce (9-2) has been in the postseason every year since 1997. Now, the Tigers will host Calhoun County (8-3), a 13-12 winner against Mitchell County, in next Friday’s Class A Public quarterfinals.
“The kids, they played with a lot of heart tonight, a lot of emotion,” said second-year Commerce coach Mike Brown. “We’ve challenged for them for the past two weeks to do that, and they responded. And I’m just as proud as I can be for them.”
While the Panthers made some big plays Friday night, Commerce’s physical approach on defense limited the damage. Clinch County entered Friday with four outings of 40 or more points, all in its final five regular-season games, and had twice hit the 50-point mark.
“You had gang tackling instead of individual tackles, and we had to do that tonight,” Brown said. “And our kids knew that. That’s where the effort comes in, and there are a lot of kids that are as tired as they can be right now because they spent it tonight on the field.”
Commerce built a 10-0 lead on a 36-yard Andres Salgado field goal and a 7-yard Thomas scoring run before Octavis Johnson’s 7-yard touchdown run for the Panthers cut it to 10-7 with 5:48 left in the second quarter.
Momentum turned quickly back to the Tigers, though, with Grant Mayberry’s 61-yard return of the ensuing kickoff setting up Thomas for a 20-yard scoring run on the next play for a 17-7 edge.
“Momentum’s a big part of the football game,” Thomas said.
Following a fumble on a possible punt, it took just two plays for Commerce to capitalize with a 38-yard touchdown run from Thomas for a 24-7 lead with 2:40 to play in the opening half.
Once Thomas broke through the defense on the scores from 20 and 38 yards out, he appeared to hit a second gear as he sprinted to paydirt.
“He’s an instinctive runner,” Brown said. “We want our fullbacks to stay on track until they get to the second level, and then they can be a running back. And he did a good job of that tonight.”
Clinch County fumbled on the opening kickoff of the third quarter and on its first offensive play of the third, losing the second. Six plays later, Tigers quarterback Caleb Brooks’ 1-yard touchdown run made it 31-7.
Thomas’ fourth score of the night was also a 1-yarder, coming nine plays after a J’Varius Wood interception, with 6:24 left in the contest.
Cole Chancey tallied 84 rushing yards on 13 carries for Commerce, 47 yards coming on the drive capped by Thomas’ final touchdown, with Mayberry adding 33 yards on eight carries. The Tigers finished with 278 rushing yards.
“We don’t have the most athletic guys,” Thomas said. “But we come out here and play as a team. And when we come together, we’ve got a lot of heart. That’s what we preach: Play with heart, intensity.”
Johnson (20 carries, 87 yards), Shannon Young (17 carries, 70 yards) and Trinity Cooper (7 carries, 68 yards) led the Panthers’ running game.
Clinch County finished the season 6-5.
Brown was excited about Commerce earning its first postseason triumph in five seasons.
“It’s big for this community. It’s big for this program,” Brown said. “It’s big for these kids. It’s something we’ve talked about, and we’ve worked our tails off.”