BELLS — The Panthers understand better than most that how you finish is more important than how you start. But when you have a start like this, it certainly feels a lot better.
With a lot more familiarity compared to this point a year ago and coming off one of the best seasons in school history, Bells has continued to build on that success.
"I knew we’d be ahead of where we were last year," Bells head coach Dale West said. "Our kids are as bought-in as ever."
Now the Panthers will face their biggest test of the season to date at the start of the toughest stretch in their schedule as Bells (3-0) travels to Holliday (2-1) to close out non-district play.
So far Bells has played three opponents who are a combined 0-9 and Holliday is a step up in competition before Bells opens 8-3A (II) play next week against the two other teams considered to be in the running for a top seed — Leonard and then defending state champion Gunter.
"They’re for sure going to be a really good gauge of where we’re at," West said. "We need a team to prepare us for the district battles we’re going to have early. Whether we’re 0-4 or 4-0, we’ve got to put ourselves in position to peak when it really matters."
The match-up with Holliday could also be a playoff preview. That was not a consideration when it came to filling out a schedule after they lost Ponder as the Week 4 opponent after realignment was completed.
Bells has been running wild dating back to the start of district play last season. The Panthers went 1-3 before winning eight straight and reaching the 3A Division II Region III semifinals before losing against eventual state runner-up Paul Pewitt.
The adjustment to the Slot-T from the spread may have taken a month to feel normal but now it’s become second nature. And even though the offense lost Wrangler Priest, last year’s district MVP with more than 1,600 yards and 21 TDs, the unit hasn’t skipped a beat.
Sophomore Brock Baker was elevated from the junior varsity and leads the team with 24 carries for 324 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Bo Baker is right behind with 305 yards and six touchdowns on 22 carries. Sophomore Grady Waldrip has added 36 carries for 244 yards and four TDs and junior quarterback Blake Rolen has a pair of scores among his 14 carries.
"We can distribute the ball between any of them," West said. "They’re a good young group. Those backs can make people miss."
Bells had a second straight blowout last Friday in a 55-8 victory over Valley View. It was a similar script to the prior outing — a 47-8 win against Howe. Both match-ups saw the Panthers race out to a large half-time advantage (40-0 against Howe, 42-0 against Valley View) with a late touchdown from the opposition ruining the shutout effort.
In the win over Valley View, Bo Baker ran for 140 yards and three touchdowns on just five carries and also caught a pair of passes for 66 yards and a TD, Brock Baker gained 135 yards and a touchdown on four carries, Ezzy Carrasco totaled seven carries for 70 yards, Blake Rolen also ran for a touchdown to go with his TD pass and Waldrip chipped in five carries for 47 yards and a touchdown as the Panthers rolled up 509 yards of offense — 420 of that on 32 carries.
Kaden Pyle also returned the second-half kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown.
While much of the focus has been on the offense, a defense led by Adian Brown, Cole Moore and Cooper Smith has allowed just a touchdown in each game. The unit opened the season with some timely goal-line stands in a 20-6 victory over Whitesboro — where another late touchdown prevented Bells from another shutout.
"We’re a well-balanced team right now," West said. "Our defense is really good. The kids have been playing really, really physical. Our first-team defense hasn’t been scored on yet."
Holliday is coming off a 19-10 victory against Vernon. After opening the season with a 28-0 loss against Iowa Park, which is ranked sixth in the Class 4A Division II statewide rankings this week, the Eagles earned a comeback victory over Eastland, 29-28 in a game they trailed 28-7 at half-time.
It took another rally last week against Vernon. Holliday was down 10-0 at half-time before pitching another second-half shutout to pull out a win with 11 points in the final four-plus minutes.
Jaxx Johnson ran 11 times for 51 yards and a touchdown and Keegan Hutchins’ lone catch from Peyton Marchand went for a 52-yard TD.
Sadler Germany kicked a 28-yard field goal and Hunter Allen notched a safety for the Eagles, who held Vernon to 149 yards.
Through three games, Johnson leads the team with 252 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries while Austin Jones is next at 136 yards on 34 carries.
Marchand has completed 12-of-28 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns with five interceptions.
Holliday has reached the 3A Division II Region II final the past two seasons and lost to Gunter both times after the Tigers had already beaten the Eagles in district play.
"Holliday’s a really good football team," West said. "It’s going to be a dogfight."