BELLS — There could not have been a worse start for the Panthers, who started last season with three tight losses to go with an OT win. It is not the first impression a new head coaching with a major switch in offensive philosophy likes to make.
"Sitting there 1-3, we saw on film the little things were hurting us. We were losing close games; it’s not like we were getting blown out," said Bells head coach Dale West. "We started getting healthy and correcting those little things."
By the time December rolled around, Bells had mastered the Slot-T and was celebrating one the best seasons in program history.
It’s a tough act to follow for the Panthers. Bells went 9-4, including a 6-0 run to the District 9-3A (II) crown, and reached the region semifinals for just the second time before losing against eventual state runner-up Paul Pewitt.
The program’s only other trip to the third round was in 1989, which also happens to be the only squad to win more games (10) than its 2019 counterparts. The district title was the program’s first since 1996 and part of an eight-game winning streak — the longest by the team in 24 years.
Bells has been to the playoffs every year since 2014, which had been the date of the last playoff victory, and the bar has been significantly raised for the large number of Panthers returning.
"We’ve got to keep those expectations high," West said. "That’s the type of season we can have again. We lost six seniors and they were good ones. But we return a lot of kids that played in some big games so we hope to keep it rolling. We’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year at this point."
The first order of business is to deal with the graduation of those several key components. Wrangler Priest was the district MVP and honorable mention all-state after totaling 1,648 yards and 21 touchdowns on 218 carries and leading the team in tackles from his linebacker spot; Cade Doggett was the district’s Offensive Lineman of the Year, and both tight end Blake Peters and offensive lineman Ben Branam were first-team all-district picks.
There are still plenty of familiar faces. Junior Blake Rolen enters his second season at the QB spot after he ran for seven touchdowns and threw for six more.
"We don’t have a better leader on our team and that I’ve coached than Blake Rolen," West said. "(He’s a) very unselfish kid."
While Priest was the main focal point of a running attack which piled up almost 4,000 yards in 13 games, the Panthers do bring back junior Bo Baker, who was first-team all-district with 182 carries for 1,062 yards and 10 TDs; and sophomore Grady Waldrip chipped in 113 carries for 481 yards and two scores as a second-team all-district selection.
Baker will moved to a half-back spot and his younger brother Brock, a sophomore, will be the fullback.
"We’ve got three of the four in the backfield coming back," West said. "We want to spread the ball around; we’d like to have even carries for the three of them."
Senior Hogan Harris is the tight end, which effectively acts as a sixth lineman based on the scheme. Senior Tanner Carter, who will be the backup quarterback, did have six catches for 164 yards and two scores as a junior.
When it comes to the offensive line, senior Landon Nelson and junior Tanner Hayes were first-team all-district picks, but the rest of the group will be new. They are joined up front by junior Quinton Douglas, who will be the center, and senior Carl Besario and junior Colton Yates, who saw most of his action a year ago on the defensive side of the ball.
"Our offensive line is going to be younger," West said. "That’s where we’re going to have to take time to mesh as a unit."
The defense brings back nearly everyone — 10 starters — although the loss of Priest is a big one as the Panthers make a shift to a 3-4 alignment.
"We’ve got a little more linebacker-type kids than defensive line-type kids. We believe in platooning as much as we can. Our only true two-way player is Bo," West said. "Our defense is going to have to keep us in games early while the offensive line figures it out. Once we get the offense rolling, we’ll be more balanced."
Senior Drake Stephens was the district’s Defensive Lineman of the Year, while classmate Hank Weaver was a first-team all-district end. Sophomore Cooper Smith is the last piece in the trenches. Junior Canyon Payne was a first-team all-district selection at linebacker and classmate Aidan Brown also returns. Junior Jaden Nelson is the newcomer to the group.
The secondary brings back everyone — Bo Baker was first-team all-district at safety, while Kaden Pyle earned second-team all-district accolades at the position. Carter and senior Keaton High are the corners.
High once again serves as the kicker and Rolen will handle punting duties for the second straight year.
Bells’ road to a second straight district title received a big roadblock thanks to realignment when the Panthers not only came back west into Region II but were put into 8-3A (II) along with defending 3A Division II champion Gunter, which has not lost a district contest in five years.
Also moving with Bells is Whitewright, Leonard and Blue Ridge — those three were the other playoff teams behind the Panthers last season — while S&S and Lone Oak, which dropped down from Division I, were added to the group.