Bell County’s physicality and athleticism proved to be too much for Fleming County to overcome in Friday’s regional championship. Six different Bobcats scored touchdowns they pulled away for a 48-12 victory.
The Bobcats improve to 13-0 on the season and will host Taylor County on Friday at 7:30 p.m. for the state semifinals. It’s the first time Bell County has advanced to the semis since 2010.
“Last year we worked so hard to wind up as the regional runner-up. Just to have the opportunity to come back, play on our field and be the top dog winning a regional championship it feels good. It’s been a long time since we won one,” Bobcat coach Dudley Hilton said after last week’s game. “You know, a few years ago people were sticking a fork in this program and saying it was done; saying there won’t be anymore Bell County.
“I’ll take a little credit for it, but my kids have worked hard. We haven’t done anything but work hard to get back to where we’re at. They can say easy games or easy whatever but we haven’t been easy on this bunch. For us to get back here, anybody could shed a tear right now. I was away from here and I heard people say what they said about Bell County and I didn’t like it. Where are those people now? What are they saying now?”
Friday’s game started out looking like it was going to be track meet. On the second play from scrimmage Dawson Woolum ran through a tackle, kept his balance and went 63 yards for a touchdown. Brandon Baker’s conversion run gave the Bobcats an 8-0 lead less than a minute in.
Fleming answered right back as Jonathan Maher hooked up with Carsen Gulley for a 59-yard gain. He then found Buddy Morgan in the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was blocked so Bell held an 8-6 lead.
Will Dean capped a seven-play, 63-yard drive with a 34-yard touchdown run and Woolum added the conversion to put the Bobcats up 16-6.
Maher was looking for another deep strike and he hit Logan Pinkney in stride as he came open on a post route. But Bell senior safety London Stephney showed off his 4.4 speed as he came from out of nowhere with a diving hit that took Pinkney’s legs out from under him as the ball came loose for an incompletion. Pinkney stayed down for several minutes but was able to return to the game in the second half. Stephney was also shaken up on the hit.
“They were in a trips set and I was kind of focused on that. But I saw he was going to go backside, saw the kid run across and jump up. I just tried to do my best to get his legs from under him — the hit was a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be,” Stephney said. “I got up kind of numb, but that’s football I just had to shake it off and keep playing for my guys. It was what it was. I love my team and I love Bell County, this is my home.”
The Panthers didn’t try to deep over the middle the rest of the game.
“(London) set the tempo for the game right there. It was a good hit, it was a good clean hit at his ankles. That was a big play for us,” Hilton said.
Later on the drive, Fleming was facing a 4th and 5 from the Bell 43. Chandler Mink picked off a Maher pass and took it back 60 yards to the Panther 13. Three plays later Baker scored on a 2-yard run and Hunter Bailey ran in the conversion and the Bobcats led 24-6 with 2:39 to play in the first quarter.
Fleming County kept the ball for most of the rest of the first half as Maher mixed in quarterback runs with the short passing games to string together two 17-play drives. The first ended in a turnover on downs at the Bell 20, but the second he capped with a 2-yard TD run to bring the Panthers within 24-12 with just 35.4 seconds to go in the half.
The Bobcats started at the 35 after the kickoff went out of bounds. Baker ran for 14 yards followed by two Stephney runs that netted 28 yards and took the ball down to the Fleming 23 with 8.8 seconds on the clock. Stephney then completed a pretty touchdown pass to Jason Jones on a post route to the back of the end zone.
“They had cut it to 24-12 going into halftime. That was a big-time pass, one of the better passes London has thrown. He dropped it right in the bucket,” Hilton said.
Dean’s conversion run sent the Bell County into the lockerroom up 32-12.
Bell’s defense opened the third quarter with a stop, then the Bobcats marched 65 yards on five plays with Stephney passing to Cameron Burnett on a corner route for a 24-yard touchdown. Bailey’s conversion run pushed the lead to 40-12.
Jonathan Lankford intercepted a Maher pass on the following possession and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown. Stephney passed to Burnett for the conversion to start the running clock with 7:05 to play in the third quarter and that proved to be the final.
For the game, Maher completed 20 of 41 passes for 213 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He also ran 25 times for 77 yards and a touchdown.
“I give Fleming County a lot of credit. They came in here and fought hard, brought a heck of a crowd two-and-a-half hours. They didn’t come here to play us close, they came to beat our tails and we answered the call,” Hilton said.
The final stats show a total team effort for the Bobcats. Woolum was the leading rusher with 81 yards on eight carries while Baker added 78 yards on ten carries. Dean finished with 58 yards on four carries and all three scored touchdowns.
Stephney completed three of four passes for 51 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 34 yards on four carries. Jones had two catches for 27 yards and a TD while Burnett caught one for 24 yards and a score. The Bobcats were 6 for 6 on two-point attempts in the game.
It was a similar story on defense. Bailey led the team with nine total tackles while Mink was in on eight stops to go along with his interception and two pass breakups. The guys up front were disruptive all night, Tyson Thomas led that group with eight tackles and a sack. Kage Baker had seven tackles while Trevor Kidd and Caleb Lefevers were both in on five stops.
That group also got a big boost from the return of junior Chase Huff, who had missed the last eight games after tearing ligaments in his leg against Whitley County.
“I think having him out there running around the ball just pushed everybody up a little bit,” Hilton added. “He had a nice game.”
Huff was a constant presence in the Fleming County backfield and finished with five tackles, a sack and two other tackles for loss.
“I knew that I had to come back and come back strong,” he said. “I almost blacked out on the field. Honestly, I don’t even remember half of it. I just remember going out and having a great time all game.”
The best part for Huff is that his high school season will continue.
“It’s crazy. It’s the greatest feeling on Earth I promise. I get to play on Thanksgiving and there’s nothing like it.”
Stephney said this year’s playoff run is something the team has been working for since last season ended.
“Last year we had goals that got cut short in this same round. We got back to work that Monday and we knew we had to work a year straight in the offseason to get where we wanted to be,” he said. “It’s just a blessing to be in the state semifinals and I think we’ve earned every bit of what we’ve got. We’re just going to keep working.”