SULPHUR SPRINGS — The timeout with less than a minute remaining did not mean anything to decide the outcome of the game. But it meant everything to how special the season was for the Bells Panthers.
The last carry of Wrangler Priest’s career was going to be a seven-yard gain right before half-time, because he went down with a leg injury and was not slated to return.
He was on the sideline until that final timeout, with the Panthers at the five-yard line. It took two snaps, but he got into the end zone one last time, his 21st rushing TD of the season after going over 1,600 yards earlier in the game.
“He wanted to go and I couldn’t put him back in knowing if he cut on it he’d really hurt himself,” Bells head coach Dale West said. “I asked if he could run straight ahead. I had to get him that last one. He deserved it. He is the heart and soul of this football team. He’s the best football player I’ve ever coached.”
One of — if not the best — teams in school history saw its run come to an end as Paul Pewitt defeated Bells, 53-20, in a Class 3A Division II Region III semifinal.
The Panthers (9-4) had won eight straight games coming into the match-up and were the first team in school history to win two playoff games in a season. They matched the 1989 team as they only ones to get to the third round and did so after getting the program’s first district title since 1996. Only those two teams prior had more wins in a season.
“It’s phenomenal. At 1-3 nobody would ever have guessed this,” West said. “The team chemistry got tighter and tighter. They just leaned on each other a little more and more. They really rose to the occasion. What these seniors have done is cement a legacy. They left a great foundation for the future.”
West took over a program which had made the playoffs five straight years but had only one postseason victory in that span. Even with so many starters returning, it will be a tough act to follow.
“Those expectations are going to be through the roof and that’s exactly how I like them,” West said. “We’ve got to do our best to continue that tradition. It’s got a become a tradition in Bells that every year this happens, that we’re playing on Thanksgiving, it’s a normal thing to keep happening. We only had six seniors — we started more sophomores and freshmen than we did seniors. We return a lot.”
Priest finished with 15 carries for 61 yards and two touchdowns, Bo Baker had 20 carries for 79 yards and a score and Grady Waldrip totaled 60 yards on 13 carries for the Panthers.
Pewitt (12-1) will face Daingerfield, which eliminated two-time defending state champ Newton, in the region final this week.
Kadrien Johnson had seven carries for 152 yards and a touchdown, Cross Holder added eight carries for 77 yards and four touchdowns and Lajathen Allen finished with 14 carries for 110 yards and a TD for the Brahmas, who did not throw a pass and finished with 468 yards on 46 carries.
“They do so much stuff well. We tried to limit what we thought we could take away,” West said. “When it comes down to it they’re a really, really good football team — both sides of the ball.”
Pewitt widened the gap on the opening drive of the third quarter when Deiontray Hill scored from three yards out less than two minutes into the half.
Baker capped off the ensuing 12-play drive with a two-yard run through the right side to get the Panthers within 38-13 in the middle of the frame.
But the Brahmas scored again in the quarter, on a 17-yard run by Johnson, and then turned an interception into a touchdown when Holder raced 25 yards up the middle on the second play of the fourth quarter for a 40-point lead.
Priest scored with 25 seconds remaining after Bells recovered a fumble just outside the red zone.
Pewitt took advantage thanks to its defense in building a 30-7 lead at half-time.
After holding just a one-point lead following the first quarter, Holder scored on a 31-yard run and ran in the conversion for a 16-7 margin less than two minutes into the second quarter.
The Panthers mishandled the ensuing kickoff and started the possession at their two-yard line. Bells was able to burn clock and keep moving ahead, thanks in part to an offsides on a punt that gave the Panthers fourth-and-one and they went for it. But the next set of downs ended on a fourth-and-short with a fumbled snap at the Bells 33.
The Brahmas needed just six plays to reach the end zone again. Allen finished off the drive from the three and Pewitt held a 22-7 lead.
With 2:31 remaining in the half, Bells started at its 35. The Panthers were just short of midfield when Blake Rolen completed a throw up the left sideline to Konder Morris but on the 40-yard gain the ball was jarred loose and Allen recovered for Pewitt at the Brahmas 18.
Johnson took off for 53 yards on the first play and Pewitt made it a three-score game when Holder notched his third TD on a six-yard run with 40 seconds to go until the break.
“It snowballed on us,” West said. “We had some unfortunate breaks and we couldn’t get the momentum flipped. You make a few mistakes against a team like that and you’re not going to overcome them.”
The Panthers pulled within a point, 8-7, in the closing seconds of the first. It was an 11-play drive which started at their 39 and Priest rumbled up the middle for the two-yard touchdown run with 17 seconds remaining on the clock.
It was a strong response to Pewitt’s opening drive when the Brahmas covered 69 yards in five plays — 48 of it on a run by Johnson to the one — before Holder’s sneak on the next next snap. He ran in the conversion for the 8-0 lead with 5:04 to go in the first.
Bells opened the game with a five-minute drive that made it as far as the Brahmas’ 26-yard line. The Panthers went for it on fourth-and-13 with an incomplete pass to the end zone.