BELLS — The town of Bells has plenty to be excited about this time of year.
Beyond celebrating high school graduation on Saturday, the athletic year is still going strong — with both softball and baseball making deep playoff runs.
The Lady Panthers are one series victory away from advancing back to the state tournament in Austin to defend their Class 2A state championship. Baseball is making history with their first-ever appearance in the regional semifinals.
Both teams get underway with their respective series on Thursday at Weatherford College. The Lady Panthers start a three-game series with Crawford at 7 p.m. while baseball takes on Valley Mills at 6:30 p.m. Both resume their series on Saturday starting at 5 p.m. with Game 2 and a Game 3 to follow after that if necessary.
“It’s great for the community,” head softball coach Kristina Stephens said. “It brings a lot of pride and camaraderie because we’re all still supporting each other.”
“As a baseball coach, I’m thrilled that we’re still playing,” head baseball coach and principal Josh Weger said. “As the principal, I’m extremely proud that both teams are still in. It says a lot about our community. They have a lot of support from administration so that everyone can be successful and this is just an example of that.”
The defending 2A softball champs are back in the regional final but had their biggest test in the playoffs to date with Bosqueville in the regional semifinals. After losing Game 2, 6-1, the Lady Panthers rallied to win 7-4 in Game 3 on Saturday in Red Oak.
“We learned a lot about our team,” junior first baseman Chesney Blount said. “I know that if we hit well, we’re really tough to beat. If we don’t, then we have to pick ourselves up and we did that in the third game.”
The comeback win propelled a team that has a number of new faces from a year ago. Even with the number of players new to the big stage, the mentality and confidence remain the same — even with the tag of state champions on their back.
“There is a different feeling this year but our emotions are just the same,” senior catcher Ashley Sloan said. “We have a younger team this year and they’re new to this whole ride to state. We just have to keep fighting.”
“We’re just focused on going out and doing what we need to do,” Stephens said. “There’s more on the line with it but we try to look at it as just the next step.”
Meanwhile, Crawford (27-3) finds itself in this regional final after coming back from a 6-2 deficit in the fifth inning to beat Axtell, 7-6, last Wednesday night in a one-game playoff.
“Crawford’s a strong team,” Stephens said. “They’re going to have a couple of pitchers who are very good. If we can adjust to that and make the routine plays, I think we’ll be good.”
Right next door from the softball field, the baseball team find itself in uncharted territory. The Panthers swept the Sam Rayburn Rebels in the regional quarterfinal series last week and are feeling good about making history.
“It’s exciting for us because we’ve never done it before,” sophomore catcher Lane Brown said. “We were strong last year and I’m glad we got over the hump this year.”
“Sam Rayburn had one of the best pitchers that we faced this year,” Weger said, “We didn’t put up a lot of runs but we were able to scrap out enough to get it done. Our guys did a great job of battling at the plate.”
This weekend, the Panthers face a new challenge in Valley Mills. The Eagles — who finished second in District 14-2A —swept Crawford in a regional quarterfinal series and enter play with a 23-7 record.
“Valley Mills is a strong team all the way around,” Weger said. “They have a strong tradition of winning and we’re going to have show up and play well to keep advancing.”
On that note with showing up, it should be a safe bet that most, if not all, of Bells will be making the nearly 120-mile trip to Weatherford at some point this weekend. With both teams playing at the same site, it’s something that everyone is looking forward to.
“It’s definitely amazing for our school and our community,” Sloan said. “We have so much support and we both motivate each other to do well.”
Of course, there’s still the matter of the other festivities going on in the community. Even as the school year winds down, the focus is still on trying to keep their seasons alive.
“These girls are pretty chill,” Stephens said. “They don’t let anything get them rattled or unfocused. After graduation, they’ll move on to the next step and that is to win a game.”
“Everyone is going in the same direction and the same schedule,” Weger said. “It was nice that it worked out that way and we were glad that we can make that happen. Playing baseball and all that other stuff is fun but these guys get a chance to hang out with each other. I’m just telling them to just enjoy it all the way through.”