It was by far the hardest and most painful day of the 2019 football season for Coach Joe Bacon and the Fort Zumwalt North Panthers.
Carthage High mounted a time-consuming 17-play drive that ate almost 9 minutes off the clock in the fourth, scored a late touchdown and ended the Panthers’ Class 5A championship game hopes with a 20-17 semifinal loss at Fort Zumwalt North on Saturday, Nov. 30.
“We lost to a really good team, so it’s not like we just played terrible and gave it away,” Bacon said. “They are a real good team. It’s frustrating to get this close and you feel like you had a good enough team to take that last step and not be able to. It’s definitely a disappointment.”
The semifinal loss was doubly tough for the players.
“It was very tough [to lose it at home],” senior quarterback defensive back Cairo Payne said. “We wanted to get to that goal. We grew up with each other and wanted this – really since we’ve been in middle school. We put in a lot of work over the summer and before the summer … [we] did what we could do, and I think we gave it our best.”
Zumwalt North’s best was plenty good for 12 weeks straight up to their semifinal exit. The Panthers went a perfect 9-0 in the regular season with wins over the likes of Francis Howell and Fort Zumwalt West.
A 63-20 win over Columbia powerhouse and rival Battle in Class 5, District 4 district championship game on Nov. 15 jump-started the Panthers’ latest playoff run.
Payne, along with senior running back Isaiah Hartrup, powered the Panther multi-pronged ground-based offense, rushing for 1,601 yards and 26 touchdowns, and 673 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season, respectively.
“Those two have done a tremendous amount for our program over the last several years, but this year in particular,” Bacon said. “How they handle themselves and how they led [the team] and their work ethic. We will miss their talent but we will especially miss their leadership.”
On defense, senior linebacker Max Martin punished opposing offense from sideline to sideline with his playmaking skills as he led the Panthers defense with 117 total tackles. Junior linebacker Parker Monning lived in opposing backfields this fall with a team-high 24 sacks.
Bacon credits his 2020 senior class with setting the tone back in August and throughout the fall and with having the Panthers prepared for every practice and game in 2019.
“There are too many [seniors] that did a great job, so I have to say the entire senior class, and so many guys that bought in and did what they could to get us as far as possible,” Bacon said.
The Panthers knocked off Chaminade 24-21 on Nov. 22 in the quarterfinal round to earn the semifinal date with Carthage.
Though there was no trip to the state championship game, for Payne, it was special to be able to finish his career at home as a Panther.
“The program here just in general, the community here in general,” Payne said. “North is like no other school in our district and really in [O’Fallon]. I just love the atmosphere. The teachers, the administrators all care about you so much. It’s not just sports.”
The Panthers’ playoff run helped reinforce what the program has become over the past seven years.
Zumwalt North has advanced to the semifinals in Class 5A three times in the last four seasons after finishing second in the state in 2016. Add to that 75 victories over the last seven years, and the Panthers have become the top program in St. Charles County and one of the most respected Class 5A programs in the state of Missouri.
“Definitely over the last six years I would take the success maybe a little more if we could. I feel like over time we’ve established that we’re doing some good there here,” Bacon said. “We’ve had some great kids coming through and they are the ones making it happen out on the field so I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish here.”