stokes

Lecanto running back Austin Stokes, center, attempts to run out of a tackle attempt by Vanguard’s Riley Smith (32) during Friday night’s game at Lecanto. The Knights defeated the Panthers 40-6.

LECANTO — It was going to be a tough task for the Lecanto football team to knock off undefeated Vanguard under the best of circumstances Friday night in the Panthers’ homecoming game. When county leading rusher Luke Malmberg went out of the game in the first quarter with a shoulder injury, that task became near impossible.

It was a 0-0 game midway through the first quarter when Malmberg went down hard after a 13-yard run to the Knights’ sideline. His injury seemed to take a little wind out of the Panthers, as Vanguard took a 23-0 lead into halftime and rolled to a 40-6 victory, to improve to 7-0. Lecanto fell to 3-4 with the loss.

“We knew they had a very good secondary and it was going to be very difficult throwing. We wanted to double-team their interior linemen and create lanes for the running backs,” Lecanto head coach Wyndell “Chop” Alexander said. “It’s just difficult. Nobody could expect that to happen.

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“It was tough. We had a game plan and it’s just rough when you lose one of your key components. But I felt like our team rallied and we fought hard.”

The Panthers had 30 yards of offense in the two series Malmberg played in, but finished the night with just 85 total yards, including 13 on the final play of the game — a touchdown pass from Schwantez Simmons to Darius Gainer.

“Our main focus was just to ground the ball. Once you take that away, it makes it very difficult,” Alexander said. “I’m praying everything is okay with Luke. We just have to come together as a team and keep pushing for the rest of the season.”

The Knights opened the scoring late in the first quarter on a 72-yard touchdown pass from Frederick Gaskin to Joshua Rembert. It was only about a 5-yard pass and Rembert did the rest, outrunning the Panther defense down the sideline.

The Vanguard defense recorded a safety late in the first and Gaskin hooked up with Dallen Ponder for a 19-yard score early in the second quarter to make it 16-0. A Dewhitt Betterson 6-yard touchdown run made it 23-0 at the half.

Ronnie Gilchrist tossed a pair of 30-yard touchdown passes in the third quarter and a 36-yard field goal in the fourth made it 40-0.

The Panther offense moved 74 yards on its final drive — helped out by four pass interference flags on the Knights. On the touchdown pass from Simmons to Gainer, the Panther grabbed the ball around a trio of Vanguard defenders in the back of the end zone.

“It just shows they’re not going to quit. They’re going to keep scrapping to the end,” Alexander said of the late score. “A lot of teams would have just thrown in the towel and totally unraveled. We knew it was important to score. It feels good that we did not get shut out.”

Gainer finished the night with 32 rushing yards and the one catch for 13 yards and a score. Malmberg had 25 yards rushing before getting injured, after racking up 903 yards in the previous six games.

The Panthers will look to rebound next Thursday when they host Springstead (4-3).

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Contact Chronicle Sports Editor Matt Pfiffner at 352-564-2989 or mpfiffner@chronicleonline.com.

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