Back in mid-August, there were at least three good reasons to think the 2012 football season would be nothing special at Blackwell:
• Two straight losing seasons, including a 1-9 rec-ord in 2011 where the only victory came by forfeit;
• A lack of senior leader-ship, with just three of them on the roster;
• The growing pains of adjusting to an all-new coaching staff.
Yet three months later, the Hornets are still going to practice and preparing for their first playoff game in four years.
And Blackwell (5-5) has shown noticeable week-to-week improvement capped off by a dramatic 58-54 win over Panther Creek that qualified the team for the playoffs as the District 8, Division II runnerup.
Perhaps fittingly, the team won after Wade Allen — who had become the team’s kicker just two weeks earlier after an injury to starting kicker Truston Cox — booted a field goal (which was his first ever) on the final play of the game to break a 54-54 deadlock.
“(Wade)’s got a pretty good leg,” said first-year coach Clint Lowry in describing Allen’s field goal. “He had missed a few extra points in the game, but I had confidence that he’d get it through. He probably jumped three or four feet in the air after he made it.
“It was a very exciting moment for the kids.”
Blackwell jumped out to a 28-8 lead in the second quarter, but Panther Creek fought back and kept it close the rest of the way. The Panthers, who would have been the district’s No. 2 team instead of Blackwell had they won, trailed by only two points at halftime and at the end of the third quarter on their home field.
“We were both fighting for a playoff berth,” Lowry said. “We had way too many penalties and turnovers, but we overcame the adversity and found a way to win. That was the most impres-sive thing to me.”
Lowry said it was a game his team would have lost had it been played earlier in the season, even though the Hornets won three games prior to the start of district and had respectable efforts in losses to three eventual playoff teams — Trent, Jay-ton and Blanket.
Blackwell lost to Trent and Blanket in back-to-back weeks, both times by just one touchdown, after starting out the season 2-1.
“Back then there was still doubt on this team,” said Lowry. “I think against Trent they were satisfied they were playing with a team that had their way with them before. I told them we had to learn how to finish.”
While the team is still a work in progress, Lowry is mostly happy with the re-sults so far. “I think over a period of time their confi-dence has risen tremend-ously,” he said.
“You have to expect to win and not just want to win. There’s a big differ-ence. I think that these guys have gradually grown to learn that.
“I think their confidence was pretty low (at the begin-ning). But now these guys are in the weight room four times a week.
“To play football, you’ve got to get stronger and not just in football, but in every sport that you play. Now they are starting to see the dividends from being in (the weight room). Now they want to be in there.”
And the team is carrying its newly-found confidence into the playoffs, where the Hornets will be facing District 7 champion Loraine on Friday in bi-district.
One poll has Loraine as an eight-point favorite, but don’t tell that to Blackwell.
“We’re expecting to win,” said junior tailback Jayden Jones, who rushed for six touchdowns and 330 yards against Panther Creek and has gained 1,783 yards in all. “We kind of enjoy being the underdog and proving people wrong.”
Still, the thought of being in the playoffs has taken a little getting used to since none of the current players have ever gotten this far.
“We never thought at the beginning of the season that we’d be here,” said Cody Shamblin, one of the team’s three seniors along with Mark Monroe and Chase Sorrells. “At the end of last year people didn’t seem to have much faith in us. But that’s changed this season.
“It’s a lot more organized this year. We know what to expect every day when we come to practice.”
“And we look forward to practice more,” said junior Mason Magness.
The team’s confidence grew after a solid second-half showing against High-land in their final pre-dis-trict game, followed by a strong effort against Robert Lee in their District 8 opener. The game was tied 30-30 entering the fourth quarter until the Steers — a top-10 team all season and the eventual district champion — rallied to win 46-36.
The teams could have a rematch if they both win two more games. Robert Lee plays Trent in bi-district tonight at Blackwell. “I’d love to get a rematch with Robert Lee,” Jones said.