Sep. 23—BLOOMING GROVE — No one could blame Blooming Grove's Lions if they showed up to play Friday night — even though they don't have a game on their schedule.
Sure, all the teams in the district had the week off before opening district play next Friday, but the way the Lions are playing no one wanted to slow down.
Jeremy Gantt's Lions are off to one of the best starts in the program's history, busting out of the gate with a 4-0 record. The Lions just beat Wortham, which was ranked No. 8 in the 2A state poll, last week, and face Palmer, the No. 8 team in the 3A poll to open district next Friday.
If you're looking for reasons these Lions are special, you'll find plenty all over the field — and off the field, too.
"A lot of it has to do with the kids buying in," said Gantt, who grew up in the Grove, played football for the Lions, went away and coached for a while and then came back home last year to as BG's head coach.
He led the Lions to the playoffs last year and he knows this team might be even better.
"We've got good senior leadership," he said. "A lot of the time you go as your head goes, and our senior leadership has been great this year. Players like Trent Nicholson and Kelton Bell have led the way."
Nicholson and Bell know all about leading and about winning. Nicholson is one of the best linebackers in this part of the state. He made over 100 tackles and was the district's and the Golden Circle's Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore two years ago. He sat out half the season with an injury last year and couldn't wait for 2022 to get here.
He's off to a tremendous start, averaging about 10 tackles a game and leading the defense along with junior Ben Baumgartner, who was the Golden Circle and district's Defensive Newcomer of the Year last season.
Bell did something that's almost unheard of when he was named the Del Thrash Award winner last year as a junior as the top player in the Golden Circle. He does it all at BG, where his numbers were just like his performance — all over the field. Last season Bell ran for 525 yards on just 43 carries for a whopping 12.2-yard average, and he caught 17 passes for 314 yards — that's 18.5 yards per catch. He scored eight touchdowns on the run and four more as a receiver, and also scored on a 65-yard punt return.
He is at it again. He has already rushed for 196 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per carry, and he has made eight receptions for 140 yards (17.5 yards per catch) and two TDs in four games.
Baumgartner is a leader, too, and one of six captains — seniors Nicholson, Bell, Timmy Hamilton, an electric tailback and linebacker who has rushed for 454 yards and six TDs in four games, and Kian Long, a two-time All-Golden Circle offensive lineman who anchors the Lion front, and juniors Baumgartner and Noah Hutchinson, one of the top receivers in the GC who has already caught 10 passes for 192 yards and three TDs. — are captains for a Lion team that breeds leadership.
Gantt has plenty of weapons.
New quarterback Rhett Southard is a big reason the Lions are 4-0. He has stepped in and stepped up, completing 30-of-49 passes (61 percent) for 500 yards and six touchdowns against a strong four-game schedule.
The Lions have outscored four opponents 191-53 and avenged last year's loss to Eustace and knocked off one of the best Wortham teams in years 35-26 in front of a big crowd on the road. The Lions are 4-0 and know what it means.
"They know they've done something that hasn't been done in a long time and the school, the community, school board, booster club and everybody here is very excited about this team — and everyone is backing this team," Gantt said.
"People call me on the phone and tell me to make sure to tell the kids we're proud of them. Blooming Grove is a great community and the whole community supports this team. They know this team is doing something that hasn't been done in more than 20 years.
"Everyone is proud of them."