BELLS — When the Panthers started running the Slot-T offense this season, it was new to them and to almost all of their opponents. In what has become a pass-happy football world, the Slot-T remains a throwback and can provide an element of surprise due to the rarity of when it shows up on a schedule.
It just so happens that as one of the best seasons in Bells history is on the verge of becoming the best year for the program, there is one thing standing in the way. The Slot-T.
Paul Pewitt is the next obstacle the Panthers have to deal with and they have also put together a great season by relying on the same offense which has spurred Bells to the third round.
“That’s part of the attraction of running the Slot-T. You don’t see it a whole lot and you can’t really replicate it in practice,” Bells head coach Dale West said. “They can definitely run it. They do a great job.”
The team that does it the best — or perhaps stops it best — will keep on playing as Bells (9-3) faces Paul Pewitt (11-1) in a Class 3A Division II Region III semifinal at 6 p.m. on Friday at Sulphur Springs.
The winner will face either two-time defending state champ Newton or Daingerfield in the region final.
Bells is in the region semifinals for just the second time and the first since 1989. This is the first group of Panthers to win multiple playoff games in the same season — the 1989 squad advanced with a bye and a tie — and a win would grant them their first spot in the state quarterfinals.
“I like to set high expectations. The kids have risen to them,” West said. “First was win district. Second was play to Thanksgiving. Third was play to December. We’ve got the first two and a win Friday night we’ve reached the third.”
It was an inauspicious start in the new era under West, who brought the Slot-T with him from Collinsville. The Panthers had made five straight postseason appearances running the spread and were being asked to do something completely different. A 1-3 record, albeit all of them close games, was the result after the first month.
“We saw small things. It started clicking,” West said. “We put multiple wins together and now we’ve won eight in a row. It’s been a fun ride and we don’t want it to end.”
The winning started with the District 9-3A (II) opener and hasn’t stopped. It was the first district title since 1996 and the eight-game winning streak is the program’s longest since that ‘96 team won 11 in a row. It is only the third time Bells has won at least eight straight contests. The nine total victories tie for the third-most in a season by the program — only the 1989 and 1996 teams had more.
“We’ve been harping on that all year, enjoying the process and enjoying the fun in it,” West said. “But knowing on Friday nights that’s the test and that’s the job.”
For the past two months, the Panthers have gotten the job done. They battled through some early injuries but have hit their stride. Wrangler Priest has 203 carries for 1,587 yards and 19 touchdowns while Bo Baker is at 973 yards and nine touchdowns on 162 carries. Quarterback Blake Rolen has seven TDs on just 82 carries and thrown the ball only 32 times in 12 games.
Half of their games have been decided by a single possession, including both playoff games. They opened with a 36-32 victory over Winona before taking a defensive battle with Elysian Fields, 14-6, last week.
“Our non-district was tough. The way we had to fight through district, that’s what you’ve got to do to win close games,” West said. “They were prepared.”
In the win over Elysian Fields, Bells shut down a team which had scored 74 points the week before. Priest totaled 159 yards and both touchdowns on 23 carries while the defense allowed 173 yards passing and 118 yards on 31 carries.
The Panthers took the lead on a fourth-down run from the one with five seconds to go in the first half and Priest’s second TD in the closing minutes provided some breathing room.
Pewitt is in the region semifinals for just the second time this decade and first since 2015. The Brahmas’ only loss came during District 11-3A (II) play, 42-38, against Daingerfield. It is the only game other than a win against Elysian Fields (33) where Pewitt allowed more than 26 points.
After opening the playoffs with a 41-21 win over Corrigan-Camden, the Brahmas raced paced Big Sandy Harmony, 55-24, last week to advance.
Pewitt finished with more than 500 rushing yards in the victory and had five players gain at least 100 yards — LaJathen Allen had 115, Keiuntray Hawkins added 111, Cross Holder totaled 110 and Kadrien Johnson and Deiontray Hill each finished with 100 in a game that was 35-8 at half-time.
In the regular season, Allen was the leading rusher with 143 carries for 1,448 yards and 21 touchdowns while Hill was at 109 carries for 753 yards and seven TDs.
Holder wasn’t that far behind — 96 carries for 700 yards and seven scores — and Johnson has 64 carries for 618 yards and 10 touchdowns and Hawkins totaled 601 yards and six TDs on 62 carries.
Holder threw just 21 passes entering the playoffs, completing 12 for 269 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. Dillon Coffey’s three catches all went for scores and covered 143 yards (47.7 per reception).
“We’re going to know what’s coming and they are too,” West said. “It’ll come down to who bows their necks and gets a stop.”