A late defensive stand gave Merryville its first win of the season and Pickering its first loss.
Trailing 30-28, the Red Devils were unable to punch it in from the 1-yard line with seconds remaining in the fourth quarter as the Panthers held on to the win.
"It's a tremendous feeling," Merryville head coach Randy Jones said. "I was so happy for the kids. They played their tails off. They gave up a couple of big plays, and we've been doing that. We're working on it. At the end to have a goal line stand with seconds left, it was tremendous for them. I was elated."
Pickering's offense was on the fire the first two games of the year, averaging 45 points a game, but the Merryville defense slowed it down.
"We had a game plan to stop their stuff, but they found some things that hurt us in the second half," Jones said. "They moved the ball down the field on us, and we had a little trouble stopping it. They ran two plays down the field that we couldn't stop, but everything else, we were on them."
The loss is the first of the season for the Red Devils, but head coach Ryan Russo wants to grow from it rather than take a step back.
"Our kids don't give up," he said. "They battled until the very end. Merryville is a really hard fighting team. You have to give it their staff and coaches over there. They were ready to play and had a great plan. They executed better than us and made the plays we didn't make.
"It's all about attitude as a team. We're going to take it as a learning step for us. You can learn a lot from a loss. It's not fun. They don't want to lose, but you have to make it a positive for you."
Merryville scored three touchdown in the second quarter – a run by Blaise Duncan, a run by Brice Foster and 55-yard interception return by Hunter Jones to take an 18-14 lead into the break.
"We got decent field position and got the run game working," Randy Jones said. "Our whole goal this week was to improve offensively to get a good feeling going into district. We worked hard on things and still have a few things to fix, but we got better. We moved the ball down field, and I thought Blaise had a good game. His numbers weren't great, but he threw the ball where he needed to and when he needed to. And, of course, who doesn't love a pick 6?"
Merryville led 24-20 at the end of the third quarter, but Pickering took a 28-24 lead on a 4-yard run by Evan Fernandez.
"Merryville's pursuit to the football amazed me," Russo said. "They had all 11 guys around the football. They played great man coverage and impressed me. We had our yardage. I think we doubled them in yardage but it was about making the plays when it mattered the most."
The Panthers retook the lead on the next possession on a 5-yard touchdown score by Cam'ron Williams.
The Red Devils drove the length of the field with under a minute and a half to play, set up from a 45-yard reception by Greg Jones.
After getting down to the 1, Pickering could not find the endzone as time ran out.
"There was no doubt in anybody's mind that we were going to punch it in," Russo said. "We called a quarterback sneak. It's been our play in short yardage. We've gotten it more times than not. You think of players rather than plays in crunch time. We wanted the ball in one of our best player's hands. They submarined with their defensive linemen to take the legs out of our center and two guards. It just clogged up, and we had nowhere to go."
Merryville expected the 1-yard QB keeper and kept its plan simple.
"Our strategy was to just stop them," Jones said. "We saw on film that they may try to run the quarterback sneak down that close, like most people would. Of course, there were some questions with the clock. They ran a whole play with the clock at 13 seconds, and it never moved. I'm just glad they didn't get in because of it, and it was just a great goal line stand for our kids."
Pickering quarterback Braden Lebato went 9-for-19 for 202 yards and a score, and Fernandez led the Red Devils with 57 yards on six carries.
Williams finished with 124 yards on 23 carries, and the Panthers rushed for 188 as a team.
"The reason we opened up and had so much success running was because of the threat of our passing game," Jones said. "If you have no threat, which last week we had none, they are just going to stack up."
The Panthers open up their district slate next week against Grand Lake on the road.
"We face a different type of opponent than we have been facing," Jones said. "We've faced a lot of spread. This last team prepared us a little bit. They do a lot of interior stuff that we have to get ready for, but overall, we continue to try and get better. We have to reboot and go again."