Oct. 9—WELLBORN — Water bottles sprayed in the air behind Wellborn's bench Friday, and coolers found whatever Panthers coach they could soak after the handshake line.
No, Wellborn didn't win or even clinch anything with its 30-10 victory over Hokes Bluff on The Hill. The Panthers got a leg up on Class 3A, Region 5's fourth and final playoff spot by beating the team they had to beat, but it'll take a victory over Weaver next week or Piedmont the week afterward to clinch.
The celebration was more about a team that lost 30 seniors and 24 starters over the past two years, and took hits from transfers, winning its fourth game in a row after an 0-3 start.
"We went down three games and didn't give up, though," said running back Xavier Parker, who rushed for 116 yards, including touchdown runs of 23 and 61 yards. "We kept pushing and kept pushing, and now we're getting where we want to be."
Wellborn's performance on Friday laid bare how much the Panthers improved after their 0-3 start against Anniston and Region 5 powers Saks and Ohatchee. The Panthers drove for touchdowns and two-point conversions on three of their first four possessions.
Jesse Lewis rushed for a 2-yard touchdown, and quarterback Grayson Johnson snuck in for another. Parker rushed for two, 2-point conversions, and Lewis got one.
Wellborn led Hokes Bluff (3-4, 3-2) as much as 24-3 by the 4:16 mark of the third quarter.
The Panthers also bowed up and limited three Hokes Bluff scoring chances to Jared Burns' 31-yard field goal to trim Wellborn's lead to 16-3 in the second quarter and two Burns misses.
Hokes Bluff closed within 24-10 on Jordan Bradley's 17-yard touchdown pass to William Wellingham in the fourth quarter, but Parker answered with a 61-yard touchdown run.
In a game that, in all likelihood, will determine which of the two teams makes the playoffs, Wellborn dominated.
The good times continue for a program that made the 2019 3A semifinals and reached the second round a year ago.
Good times continue despite the graduation of a generational player in Jett Smith and several other seniors.
Three possible returning starters from last season transferred.
"It's about game experience, and we didn't have any going into that Anniston game," Wellborn coach Jeff Smith said. "Every week, we've gotten a little more confident, and we've gotten better."
Wellborn's four-game winning streak includes three games that saw the Panthers score more than 50 points. Hokes Bluff slowed them down to 30, largely by holding the ball on long drives that bore little fruit.
Wellborn showed itself to be a much improved team from the start of the season, hence the celebration after the game.
"We have taken so much ridicule," Smith said. "People didn't think we were going to be any good, and a lot of our players got attacked, like, 'Oh, you ain't this and you ain't that.'
"For them to hang in there and not quit and keep working, I can't tell you how proud I am of them."
Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.