Bell earns fourth trip to state finals with win at Hart County

Published 9:37 am Wednesday, November 29, 2023

By Hayden Canady

Contributing Writer

Every season starts for every team across Kentucky with dreams of playing on Kroger Field in their last game of the season. Only 12 teams get to do that each season. Bell County is one of those teams.

The Bobcats defeated Hart County 30-28 Friday night in the Class 3A state semifinals to earn that right. Bell County will travel to Kroger Field in Lexington to play Louisville Christian Academy for the title at noon on Saturday.

In the semifinals, Hart County was a worthy adversary as they fought until the final whistle, making a furious comeback at the end of the game but came up short when Bell rose to the occasion and did what was needed to close out the game.

The Raiders took the opening kickoff and showed why they were undefeated and tabbed by some as the most physical team in the state. Following a touchback, the Raiders marched down the field for an 80-yard touchdown drive. The drive was 18 plays long and chewed up the entire first quarter. The touchdown was scored on by Hunter Monroe on the first play of the second quarter and the extra point by Johnathan Gardener was successful, putting the home team ahead 7-0.

Bell County countered with its own impressive scoring drive, taking 11 plays to find pay dirt when Daniel Thomas punched it in from 1-yard out. That touchdown gave Thomas his third state record for the season. He broke Shaun Alexander’s record for rushing touchdowns in a season. The conversion failed, leaving the score 7-6.

The ensuing Hart drive was different than the first. It lasted only seven plays and it involved a huge 31-yard run by Monroe. The first drive had featured many shorter runs with the Bell defense bending but not breaking. After kicking the point after successfully after the first touchdown, the Raiders decided to go for two after the second one and did not make it into the end zone which would prove to be a huge factor in the game.

From that point, Bell County’s defense held Hart out of the end zone until late in the fourth and Bell scored 24 straight points. That assault on the scoreboard began with Thomas scoring on a run play from ten yards out. Blake Burnett connected with Blake Evans for the two-pointer giving Bell the lead at 14-13 with 4:51 to play in the half.

Hart ran ten plays on its following drive, but it ended on fourth and long when defensive linemen Hagen Neal and Jeremiah Saylor combined to stop the quarterback on a scramble.

Bell County took over on its own 34-yard line but were unable to get anything going and had to punt. From that point, Hart ran out the last seconds of the half and the Bobcats led by one point at halftime.

Bell took the opening kickoff of the second half and went on a time consuming 13-play drive ending with a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Thomas with a little over four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Burnett connected with Hayden Damron for the two, giving Bell a 22-13 lead.

Hart County tried to counter after taking the ball down to the Bell County 14-yard line. The Bell County defense came up big when freshman defensive lineman Spencer Phipps recovered a Raider fumble.

Bell County ran out the rest of the third and almost three minutes of the fourth with another lengthy drive ending with a familiar story as Thomas went in from 6 yards for his fourth and final touchdown of the evening. That was when the decision for Hart to go for two earlier in the game came into play as he also did the honors on the two-pointer, giving Bell County a seemingly insurmountable seventeen point lead with 9:31 to go in the game. Hart needed three scores to advance to Kroger Field and would have to get them while holding Bell scoreless.

Hart County scored on the next drive when Clark Rexroat ran it in from 12 yards out, but the Bell defense made them take 14 plays and much of the remaining time to do so. After Jaxson Shoulders hauled in a pass from Jacob Shoulders, the Bobcats led 30-21 with a little over five minutes to go in the game.

Hart County attempted an onside kick on the next play but it rolled out of bounds. The Raiders did something they had not done much of the entire night on the next defensive series which was stop the Bobcats. Bell turned the ball over on downs in Hart territory.

The Raiders needed a quick strike and they got it. On the third play of the drive, after scrambling around, Jacob Shoulders found Rexroat in the end zone on a 39-yard touchdown pass. Gardener added the point after leaving Hart down by two points but with a chance to win.

The Raiders attempted an on-side kick on the next play but junior ullback Blake Evans sealed the game when he recovered the kick. Evans led the defense with eleven tackles. Damron contributed eight tackles. Cayden Huff and Saylor both added seven tackles.

Thomas carried the ball 41 times for 236 yards to add to his national and state leading rushing totals. Kaleb Miller had one carry for nine yards but it was a huge carry gaining a first down in a crucial situation early in the second half. Burnett added 58 yards on seven carries.

“It was a good team win for Bell County. We all played well together and I’m grateful for the big crowd that we took.” Bell County coach Dudley Hilton said.

Saturday will be Bell’s fourth championship appearance. Hilton’s teams won titles in both 1991 and 2008. The Bobcats lost to Belfry in 2019 in their last appearance.