Navarre Raiders win hard-fought district opener against Patriots

Periods of pouring rain and crazy momentum shifts were part of the story line of Navarre’s District 2-6A opener against Pace Friday night at Bennett C. Russell Stadium.

This back-and-forth battle between the sixth-ranked Raiders and upset-minded Patriots was a showdown where both teams put up a fight and refused to back down.

Navarre threw the most punches, cashing in on crucial offensive opportunities and coming up with key defensive stops  in a 49-35 win, the 26th in the last 27 regular-season games for the Raiders and the exclamation point on a fourth consecutive perfect September.

Raiders head coach Jay Walls wasn’t expecting the rain. The effort by Pace, on the other hand, wasn’t surprising.

“I looked at the radar and didn’t really see much, except for some pop ups over toward Fort Walton,” Walls said. “We knew Pace was a tough team. It’s district play. You can throw the records out.”

Navarre has won the last seven meetings against Pace and the win for Walls was his 55th as the head coach of the Raiders (5-0).

The victory was also the first step toward winning the first district crown since 2015, a big deal considering only district champs are assured of a playoff berth.

Dante Wright put the Raiders on top early in the opening quarter. His 79-yard run was one for the highlight reel, the junior shaking off defenders left and right. He was nearly knocked out of bounds but kept his balance and cut up field and raced to the end zone to give Navarre a 7-0 lead.

Damean Bivens trimmed the lead to 7-6 on a touchdown run. And then things got crazy as the rain began to fall.

A high snap resulted in a safety and an 8-6 lead for the Patriots (1-4). Bivens scored his second touchdown later in the quarter for a 14-7 cushion.

The madness didn’t end there. Alex Gilchrist came up with the football amid a pile of players  just outside the 10-yard line after the ball bounced off the return man on a punt. Sage Chambers’ 3-yard run tied the score at 14-14.

A 60-yard run by Omari Green, a 70-yard punt return by Dante Wright and a 10-yard run by Chris Williams pushed the Raiders in front 35-21 at halftime.

Green scored on a 67-yard run in the third and Wright sealed the deal with a 26-yard touchdown run with 1:47 left in the game.

“It felt amazing (to win),” Williams said. “We fought for four quarters, offensively and defensively, and our O-line worked its butt off. I praise them every day.”

This team seems to stay even keel, even in tough moments, and it’s paid off so far as the Raiders improved to 15-0 in the month of September over the last four seasons.

“Our kids are steady,” Walls said. “They practice hard, they lift hard and they try to do the little things,” Walls said. They do extra, and when we get in the game, the kids seem to play steady. We were fortunate to come up with big plays on offense, defense and in the kicking game.”

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