The rivalry between the Ponte Vedra Sharks and the Nease Panthers remains as keen today as it was eight years ago when the very first Battle of the Bridge took place. This is despite the fact that the result has been the same every year: The Sharks take home the trophy. Last Friday night at the Shark Tank, Ponte Vedra did just that again, beating the Panthers 24-13.
But the story of this game is not about its outcome, or that the Sharks have never lost to the Panthers. The story of this game is about the performance of the Sharks’ all-purpose player, Jarrett Stepp.
A look at the Ponte Vedra roster lists Stepp as a wide receiver, and he certainly is that and then some. Last week he scored the varsity’s only touchdown against Fletcher, on a 60-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Murrah. He more than duplicated that feat this past week against Nease catching a pair of TD passes, one good for 69 yards. He almost had a third touchdown, but it was ruled a no-catch.
Despite what the roster says, when Stepp wasn’t busy catching touchdowns passes from Murrah, he was returning kickoffs and punts for close to 100 yards. Nor does the roster take into account his role on the other side of the football. He and Christian Herring are the starting cornerbacks on coach Matt Toblin’s defense, and the pair was pivotal in holding Nease quarterback Preston Staples to under 100 yards passing.
The Panthers found Stepp to be a human highlight reel and discovered firsthand that his special teams contribution went beyond kickoff and punt returns. When Nease lined up to kick a field goal or an extra point, Stepp was the player they needed to block but twice failed to do so.
The Sharks opened the game with Stepp’s 42-yard kickoff return but were not able to convert a first down and punted. Two plays later, CD James recovered a fumbled Panthers exchange, and the Sharks converted the turnover into a score aided by a pass interference penalty when Stepp was interfered with. Zack King’s 20-yard burst put the Sharks at the Nease 3-yard line, and Murrah ran it in on a quarterback draw. Riley Robbins’ PAT was good, and the Sharks led 7-0.
Nease engineered a long drive that consumed the better part of the opening quarter, but the Sharks forced a field goal attempt from the 11-yard line. The kick was blocked by—you guessed it—Jarrett Stepp.
Stepp drew another pass interference call, but that Shark drive ended with a field goal attempt that Nease blocked.
When the Panthers failed to pick up a first down on their next series, Zach Sheffer’s 58-yard punt pinned the Sharks inside their own 20-yard line.
Back on offense, Murrah went to work, first with a 5-yard completion to Stepp, then a 10-yard completion to Cade D’Errico. He picked up seven more on a scramble, and with second-and-3 launched a missile to Stepp that the senior speedster caught in full stride for a 69-yard touchdown. The Sharks now led 14-0.
With four minutes left in the half, Staples moved his Panthers 60 yards, finishing the drive himself with a 1-yard diving touchdown as the half ended. Stepp’s rush was just too late to block the extra point, leaving the Sharks up 14-7.
Nease couldn’t convert a first down on its first series of the second half and had to punt. Stepp’s long return gave the Sharks a first down inside the Panthers’ red zone. Murrah lofted a touch pass to Stepp in the left corner of the end zone, and the Sharks were now up 21-7.
No one who has seen a coach Toblin team play should have been surprised by the next turn of events—an onside kick by the Sharks. Christian DeSanto recovered the ball, and Ponte Vedra went on to kick a 27-yard field by Robbins.
The Panthers would score their final touchdown with three minutes left in the third quarter when Staples connected with wide receiver Ashton Wood. But Stepp again blocked the extra point, making the score 24-13.
The teams traded possessions in the closing minutes of the third quarter—the Sharks on a punt and the Panthers on an interception by CD James. Ponte Vedra wasn’t able to convert a 28-yard field goal.
Nease’s last opportunity ended when the Shark defense gang-tackled Staples on fourth-and-3.
The Sharks next travel to Palatka for a non-district game Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. The Panthers will host Orange Park, also on Sept. 1 at 7 p.m.