ALBANY, Ga. — The High Country Grizzlies indoor football team announced its presence in the National Arena League with the subtly of a falling anvil against the Georgia Firebirds on March 18.
High Country dismantled Georgia 62-29 in the first game of the Grizzlies’ existence at the Albany Civic Center. After getting off to a slow start by fumbling the ball on their second play of the game, and by falling behind 10-6, the Grizzlies stormed back by scoring the next 20 points to take a 26-10 lead they would never give back.
“It was everything we expected,” Grizzlies quarterback Stephen Panasuk said. “We expected to come here and get a win. We were sick of seeing each other in camp for three weeks, so we just wanted to focus on being 1-0 and that’s what we did.”
Panasuk threw for five touchdowns, three to Daron Clark one each to former App State receivers Malachi Jones and Dexter Jackson. The Grizzlies’ offensive line gave Panasuk plenty of time to throw the ball and gave 6-foot-0, 285-pound fullback Undra Hendrix II room to run for two more touchdowns.
Panasuk, who completed 13-of-18 passes for 188 yards and no interceptions, also scored on a touchdown run.
“The line did a great job,” Panasuk said. “Those big guys, they never really get love and they definitely deserve it for what they did tonight. That includes our fullback running the ball and blocking. I think I only got hit twice and one was an illegal defense, so they did a great job blocking for me.”
For the record, Clark scored the team’s first touchdown on a 36-yard touchdown pass from Panasuk. Clark snuck down the left side of the field undetected by the Firebirds’ secondary and had no trouble racing to the end zone.
The extra point failed, but the Grizzlies took a 6-3 lead.
“(Panasuk) had a pretty good game for his first game,” Grizzlies coach Josh Resignalo said. “I thought Stephen was right-on and his efficiency was high.”
The Grizzlies led 26-17 at halftime, with the help of a fumble recovery by former App State safety Troy Sanders, who scooped a Jeffrey Legree lateraled pass and returned it nine yards for a touchdown.
The Grizzlies scored first in the second half on a 3-yard Hendrix run to take a 32-17 lead into the fourth quarter. Hendrix scored on the second play of the fourth quarter and Panasuk found Jones for a 9-yard score to give the Grizzlies a 46-17 lead with 8:08 left in the game.
“In the first half, we tried to get the jitters out and get a feel for the game and for the first time of being in the walls and the atmosphere,” Resignalo said. “In the second half, we came out a different team.”
Another Panasuk touchdown pass, his third to Clark, gave the Grizzles a 53-17 lead that eventually turned into a 60-23 advantage after Jackson caught a 9-yard TD from Panasuk. One play earlier, after the Firebirds scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Percy Turner to John Harris, Jackson recovered an onside kick at the Georgia 15 and returned it to the nine-yard line.
Grizzlies kicker Michael Lima added a two-point rouge when his final kickoff went through the goalposts in the Firebirds’ end zone.
“We executed the game plan. That’s all it was,” Panasuk said. “In our playbook, we have plays that are designed to beat every coverage. Everybody knew their stuff and knew their plays and there were no mental mistakes. When you don’t make mental mistakes, it’s almost too easy at times.”
The victory was historic for the Grizzlies, who were formed in April, 2016. The team is a charter member of the NAL and was taking on a team that was 4-5 last season.
The Grizzlies will host their first game of the season at 7 p.m. on March 25 against the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks. The team also hosts Dayton on April and Jacksonville on April 9.