The Bigelow Panthers made big plays early on offense and big plays all day on defense.
Bigelow intercepted two passes, recovered a fumble and stopped East Poinsett County three times on fourth down for a stifling 28-14 win in Friday afternoon's Class 2A state championship game before 4,358 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
The state championship is the first for Bigelow (13-0) in the 32-year history of its football program and follows the boys basketball state title from March and a baseball runner-up finish in May 2022.
On Friday, Bigelow's defense keyed on -- and stopped -- the vaunted running game of East Poinsett County (12-2), spearheaded by senior running back Dennis Gaines.
"First off, he's an outstanding talent and an outstanding running back," Bigelow Coach Luke Starks said of Gaines. "We knew we had our hands full going in. Up front, we did a great job of maintaining the line of scrimmage and freeing up our linebackers to flow around and make some plays on them. For the most part, our DBs did a good job of keeping everybody in front of us and rallying to the ball."
The Panthers limited Gaines to 48 yards on 19 carries. Starks said he was hopeful his defense could contain Gaines, but he had his doubts.
"I wasn't for sure," Starks said. "He's a great back and very, very talented. The quarterback is, too. He's got some wheels and can run. We're very pleased with the output that the guys put out there today."
Offensively, Bigelow struck early with senior quarterback Rhett Neumeier connecting with Ryan Hobbs on a 46-yard touchdown pass on the Panthers' sixth offensive play. Neumeier also added the extra point for a 7-0 lead with 9:41 left in the first quarter.
That was set up by a leaping interception by Easton Platt on East Poinsett County's second play of the game.
After Bigelow forced punts on consecutive drives, Neumeier hit Platt for a 51-yard touchdown pass with 4:05 left in the first quarter. The 2-point run failed, leaving the Panthers up 13-0.
"We didn't make enough plays in the passing game, and they made big plays in their passing game," East Poinsett County Coach Brandon Powell said. "That ended up being the difference in the ballgame."
East Poinsett County quarterback Cooper Argo gave the Indians momentum going into halftime with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Gaines, who was wide open in the end zone on the final play of the first half. Argo's 2-point conversion pass to Tyrus Reel cut Bigelow's lead to 13-8.
Bigelow answered to open the second half with Neumeier hitting Brandt Tipton on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 9:27 left in the third quarter. Neumeier's extra point stretched Bigelow's lead to 20-8.
East Poinsett County pulled within 20-14 after Argo's 29-yard touchdown pass to Omar McCuiston with 6:28 left in the fourth quarter. But Bigelow put the win away with a 4-yard touchdown run by Carter Alexander with 3:07 left.
Bigelow had nine tackles for 22 yards in losses with a sack and forced three turnovers with the three fourth-down stops.
"They did a great job of stuffing the run," Powell said. "They put a lot of guys in the box and made it tough on us to run the football."
Neumeier, the son of Bigelow boys basketball Coach Craig Neumeier, earned the Most Valuable Player award on Friday, completing 12 of 21 passes for 194 yards and 3 touchdowns. Neumeier also played on the basketball title team and started at third base for the runner-up baseball team as a sophomore.
Alexander led Bigelow with 67 rushing yards and the fourth-quarter touchdown run. Tipton had six catches for 35 yards and a touchdown. Both also started on the basketball and baseball teams.
Gaines, who set a single-season state record with 3,232 rushing yards and 44 touchdowns last year, finished his career with 6,986 rushing yards and 94 rushing touchdowns.
2A State Football Championship Game
Photos of the 2A State Football Championship Game between Bigelow and East Poinsett at War Memorial Stadium.