Gunter wins key district clash over Bells

Jerry Powers,
The Herald Democrat
Gunter's Hudson Graham throws to Ethan Sloan during a victory against Bells in District 8-3A (II) action at Gunter.

GUNTER — Both Bells and Gunter went into their match-up as defending district champions thanks to a shakeup in realignment that put two of the eight best teams in 3A Division II in 2019 together for the 2020 season.

Neither team dropped a district contest last season and both made deep playoff runs — the only difference was Gunter's ended with a second state championship in four seasons.

Being the defending champ does carry a lot of clout and has everybody wanting to take you down, especially a team which viewed the Tigers as their main threat.

But Bells wasn't able to keep pace as Gunter shut down the Panthers' vaunted running attack for a 41-7 victory in District 8-3A (II) action.

It was the 30th straight district victory for the Tigers (5-1, 2-0), who now have the inside track to a fifth consecutive district crown as the only undefeated team left in the 8-3A (II) standings. Gunter plays at Leonard on Friday while Bells (4-2, 1-1) will try to rebound at home against Blue Ridge on Friday.

The Panthers were averaging almost 400 yards rushing but the Tigers held them to 168 on 41 carries and scoreless through three-and-a-half quarters before Bells avoided the shutout on a Grady Waldrip touchdown run from a yard out with four minutes left in the game.

By that point Gunter had built a commanding lead behind Ethan Sloan and Ashton Bennett. Bennett ran 14 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns while Sloan had seven carries for 38 yards and a TD, caught four passes for 52 yards and a touchdown and returned a fumble 23 yards for a score.

Waldrip led Bells with 16 carries for 80 yards, Brock Baker added 13 carries for 37 yards and Bo Baker chipped in eight carries for 35 yards.

Bells had the first possession but had trouble getting going with just a single first down.

Gunter then followed with a drive of 64 yards down and score on a four-yard Sloan run in the middle of the opening quarter.

The Tigers score with 1:56 left in the first. Hudson Graham, who completed 12-of-14 passes for 128 yards and a TD, connected with Cole Lemons for 12 yards and then hit Sloan on the left side for a receiver screen pass that went 33 yards for a 13-0 advantage. Lemons ended with four receptions for 35 yards.

Gunter scored twice in the second quarter. Sloan picked up a fumble and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown with 7:22 to go until the break and Bennett made it a 27-0 lead at half-time with a six-yard run at the 2:52 mark of the quarter.

The Tigers wasted little time adding to the margin when they opened the second half with a touchdown drive that covered 70 yards in 12 plays and nearly half of the third quarter. Bennett capped the possession with a 14-yard touchdown.

Cannon Lemberg's 27-yard touchdown run with just under eight minutes remaining in the game was Gunter's final scoring of the night.

District 8-3A (II)