SULPHUR SPRINGS — Even though they have run offenses that started with the same letter, the Panthers knew things would be different going from the spread to the Slot-T. They just didn’t know how different.
It took a little while to get adjusted to a system which replaced passing on just about every down to running right into the teeth of the defense on every snap. The early results — a 1-3 record — weren’t pretty.
“Just in learning the offense, how to be tough. We had to figure how to push through that,” senior running back Wrangler Priest said. “We figured it out about four games in, the start of district.”
Since then the Panthers haven’t lost and earned some milestones along the way. They added to their first district title since 1996 by getting their first playoff win in five years — and the second in program history — after holding off Winona, 36-32, in a Class 3A Division II Region III bi-district contest.
“This is a phenomenal group of kids,” first-year Panthers head coach Dale West said. “It was the perfect timing for them and for me to come together at this moment.”
Priest finished with 32 carries for 229 yards and three touchdowns while Bo Baker added 15 carries for 99 yards and two scores for Bells (8-3), which will play either Hemphill or Elysian Fields in the area round.
“If we make a hole, they’re going to find it,” senior center Cade Doggett said. “I love playing with these dudes. I love football in every aspect and to have the ability to play another week is amazing.”
Quin Johnson totaled 145 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries while Ashton Smith and Arimon Ford each scored twice for Winona (6-5), which ran just 40 plays to 70 by Bells.
“We knew we had to play keepaway because they had a back whose the best we’ve seen this year,” West said.
The Panthers ran 68 times for 419 yards, including melting off the final 5:18 after Tanner Carter recovered an onside kick. In the middle of the drive Priest got the ball and converted his fifth fourth-down run of the game to extend the possession.
“I love it,” Priest said. “That’s what I live for.”
Winona tried a furious comeback and almost all of their second-half points were the result of special teams.
Bells started the trend with an onside kick to open the third quarter and Austin Conner recovered for the Panthers. Baker was able to break outside after putting a move on one defender and then bowling over another at the goal line for a 20-8 lead less than three minutes into the half.
But Smith returned the ensuing kickoff 68 yards for a score, making a cut from the right sideline to get through a hole and then back to the outside as the Wildcats were back within six when the PAT went off the right upright.
The main ball carriers then traded touchdowns. Priest picked up three of those fourth-down conversions during a 13-play series, including one on fourth-and three at the six-yard line before scoring from two yards out on the next snap.
But Johnson returned the kickoff to the Bells 40 and made it a 28-20 margin with a three-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Baker broke free on a run up the middle for a 26-yard touchdown to give Bells a 16-point lead but Ford followed with a 94-yard kickoff return when he picked up the loose ball near the right sideline and then cut all the away across the field to get down the opposite sideline with just over nine minutes left.
“That’s where you get exposed when you put them in space,” West said. “We’ll clean it up and be fine.”
Down by 10, Winona tried an onside kick and Smith recovered at the Bells 45. Johnson kept the chains moving on a fourth-and-one run from the 36 and on third-and-goal Julio Zuniga found Ford on the right side for a five-yard touchdown and it was a four-point game after the kick was blocked.
But Carter was able to turn the ball over to the offense and they didn’t leave the field until the clock hit zero.
The Panthers scored twice in the second quarter with touchdowns by Priest for a 13-8 lead at half-time. Priest went into the break with 15 carries for 138 yards as Bells ran 31 times for 230 yards — a 7.4 average.
“He’s a workhorse,” West said. “A very special player.”
But early in the second quarter the Panthers were trailing by six.
A goal line stand by Bells kept the Wildcats from adding to their advantage. Winona had started the drive at its 16-yard line and in seven plays had first-and-goal at the seven. Following a run for no gain, Zuniga threw three incompletions, the last when Canyon Payne batted down the pass at the line of scrimmage.
The Panthers headed the other way and went ahead with a nine-play drive capped by Priest’s 13-yard run right through the middle of the line with 6:26 to go in the second quarter.
Bells forced a quick three-and-out and then marched 82 yards in nine plays, all on the ground. Konder Morris picked up 34 yards on the first snap to get the Panthers past midfield and Priest ended the possession with a 14-yard TD run with 58 seconds to go until the break. Winona blocked the extra point try, Smith grabbed it in the end zone and raced 103 yards for two points to make it a 13-8 margin.
The Wildcats tried to reclaim the lead right before the half. They got to the Bells 39-yard line but Zuniga’s deep pass to the left sideline was intercepted by Kaden Pyle to keep the Panthers in front.
Winona scored on its first series, thanks to a 37-yard run by Johnson and a 19-yard catch by Smith before he added a 15-yard reception from Zuniga in the left side of the end zone over two defenders. The Wildcats went for two but were stopped short for a 6-0 lead with 5:04 remaining in the first.
Bells turned the ball over on downs at the Winona 28 on the game’s opening possession, going 52 yards in nine plays and taking up nearly half of the quarter. A fourth-and-three penalty backed the Panthers up and led to an incomplete pass instead of attempting to pick up the first down on the ground.