With a lot of hard work, one key decision, and a few favorable bounces, the Pelion Panthers have reached the third round of the Class 2A playoffs for the first time.
The Panthers (7-4) travel to Cheraw (7-4) on Friday in the Class 2A Division I playoffs.
“Any time you can advance this far and you’re still playing, you feel good about that,” Panthers coach Ben Freeman said.
The Panthers got a No. 4 seed to earn a bye through the first round, and defeated Crescent by six points to advance.
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It has not been smooth sailing for the Panthers.
Freeman and his coaches decided to install a new offensive system, and working out the kinks led to inconsistent performances early in the season.
“We changed our whole offensive philosophy this year to a more ground-oriented attack,” he said.
The ball-control style of offense the Panthers run makes the most of the talents of running backs Isaiah Jenkins and Ervin Green, and gives quarterback Zach Hawkins a lot of flexibility.
“With the type of athletes we had, it gives us the opportunity to keep the ball in their hands, and with four or five guys, it makes us more diverse,” Freeman said.
But change, even when it’s for the better, is difficult.
The Panthers started the season with back-to-back losses, scoring 12 points in two games, as they worked to adjust on offense. In addition to their new game plan, the Panthers had the extra obstacle of lacking a kicker.
Defense also was problematic, giving up big plays and a lot of points that put added pressure on the offense.
But time was on the Panthers’ side.
“At the beginning of region season, the offense kind of started clicking,” Freeman said.
A bye week at the start of the region schedule afforded Pelion time to get healthy, and the Panthers managed to come through Region 3-2A with a 4-1 mark.
Now Freeman has the assurance that his decision to shake things up was the right one.
The Panthers’ crew of backs has set a school record for single season rushing yardage — 3,365 yards, led by Green’s 1,040 — and produced 37 touchdowns. Hawkins leads the team with 13 rushing touchdowns and six passing scores.
“We hoped that (the change) would produce these results,” Freeman said.
A four-point win against Keenan in the region finale, a game Freeman said could have gone either way, gave the Panthers another bye, another rest at a crucial point.
Against coach Johnny White and the Cheraw Braves, the Panthers look for all the pieces to come together one more time.
“They’ve got a lot of tradition there, and you have to have a lot of respect and admiration for what they’ve done there,” Freeman said. “But we’re more concerned about us, and just making sure we take care of ourselves.”