Bells moves on by winning one rematch, earns another

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Bells' Grady Waldrip ran for 146 yards and three touchdowns during the Panthers' area-round victory over Eastland.

BOYD — When Bells had its season end a year ago, in this same stadium against the same team, the Panthers knew exactly the reason why Eastland had been the one advancing.

“We had 500 yards but we just didn’t finish drives,” said a not very superstitious Bells head coach Dale West. “That was the emphasis all week. We had to finish drives.”

“Same venue; different result.”

The Panthers were up to the task by scoring on their first four possessions — and converting a fourth down during three of them — on the way to a 67-37 victory over the Mavericks in a Class 3A Division II Region II area round game at J.G. Cartwright Field.

Bells (9-3) set the school record for points in a playoff game to advance and face Holliday (12-0), which beat Leonard 35-28, in the region semifinals at 3 p.m. on Friday at C.H. Collins Athletic Complex in Denton. This is a rematch of a Week 4 non-district game that Holliday won 27-14.

It is the second time in three seasons, and third overall, that the Panthers made the region semis. Eastland (6-6) kept Bells from making it three straight years with a 49-22 victory in the area round last season. It is the third straight nine-win season for the program, which is a first, and it came with the most points score by the team since an 83-0 win over Trenton in 2017.

Grady Waldrip had 26 carries for 146 yards and three touchdowns, Brock Baker finished with 14 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown, Bo Baker totaled 96 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries and Blake Rolen gained 115 yards and a TD on seven carries for Bells, which earned 565 yards on 68 carries.

“It felt like we were in a good position,” West said. “But against an offense like that you always feel the pressure.”

Keaton Hicks had 15 carries for 121 yards and two touchdowns and was 13-of-19 passing for 166 yards and two interceptions while Jacob Cruz totaled six receptions for 112 yards and a TD for Eastland, which was the region runner-up to Gunter last season.

But the Panthers turned the tables this time as they forced four turnovers and controlled the ball as the gap on the scoreboard widened to 32 points early in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve done that all year. Our defense has been making big plays all year,” West said.

After the first nine minutes of the third quarter saw no scoring, the teams combined for three TDs in the span of 80 seconds.

Grady Waldrip had his final touchdown run, from four yards out, with 3:33 remaining in the stanza.

Hicks connected with a wide-open Cruz deep down the middle on a reverse flea flicker for a 39-yard score barely a minute later.

Kaden Pyle returned the ensuing pooch kick to the Eastland 38 and Brock Baker scored on the first play from scrimmage for a 46-22 advantage by the end of the third.

Jacob Aaron picked off Hicks near midfield as the Mavericks were trying to respond and Bo Baker capped that drive with an eight-yard TD run in the opening minutes of the fourth.

Eastland then turned to its backups and got a pair of scores via Cooper Wright, who ran for a four-yard touchdown and then found Austin Rodgers for a four-yard TD pass with just over two minutes left.

In between Rolen got loose for an 81-yard touchdown run and Peyton Washburn had the final word by racing down the left sideline for a 62-yard TD with 1:25 remaining.

Bells took a 30-14 lead into half-time because there was only one only drive the Panthers were unable to finish off in the half. It came after Hayden Allen recovered a fumble at the Eastland 44 with 3:18 remaining in the second quarter.

Bells faced fourth-and-inches at the 10-yard line and Waldrip was stopped at the line with just under a minute left on the clock.

Eastland made it past midfield but Hicks’ Hail Mary to end the half was picked off by Spencer Hinds — the third turnover of the half.

That was the first incompletion for Hicks, who connected on his first seven throws. But it was his running ability that led to both of the Mavericks’ touchdowns as he totaled 13 carries for 112 yards and two TDs before the break.

Bells had a 16-0 advantage through the opening eight minutes. The Panthers got the ball at the start and went nine plays — the biggest a 31-yard pass from Rolen to a wide-open Jaden Nelson deep over the middle on fourth-and-seven before he was dragged down at the two-yard line.

Waldrip punched it in from a yard out and also ran in the conversion at the 7:53 mark of the first.

The first play for Eastland was a keeper through the line and Hicks took a hard hit from Brock Baker that knocked the ball loose and Cooper Smith recovered at the Mavericks 28.

Bo Baker ended the short series when he scored on a seven-yard toss to the right. Waldrip ran in that conversion with 4:03 to go in the quarter.

Hicks made it a 16-7 contest when he had a seven-yard touchdown run with just over a minute remaining in the first.

The teams continued to trade touchdowns in the second quarter.

Eastland had a chance to force a turnover on downs as the Panthers faced fourth-and-four but Waldrip busted through the right side and shed a tackle attempt for a 38-yard TD run.

Eastland answered just minutes later when Hicks scored on a three-yard keeper through the left side with 7:37 left before the break to get the Mavericks back within a possession.

The Panthers marched 85 yards in nine plays to go up 30-14. Brock Baker ripped off a 35-yard run right before Bo Baker’s six-yard touchdown with just under four minutes remaining until half-time.

That set up the frantic final minutes where Eastland had two of its turnovers and Bells turned the ball over on downs.