Pantego Christian coach Drew Sells has waited for that signature “program win” in the time that he has helped to rebuild the Panther football program.
It finally came Friday night.
Kaden Paladini and Myion Hicks each ran for two touchdowns apiece in the second half and the Pantego Christian defense recovered two fumbles for scores as the Panthers outscored the Grace Prep Lions 38-7 over the final two quarters of play to earn a 44-22 victory at South Grand Prairie High School’s Warrior Stadium.
“I challenged them (at halftime),” Sells said. “I said, ‘This is going to be a program win if we’re going to win.’ I told them that we’re not going to change anything, we’re not going to draw up any plays up. You’re going to win or you’re not.
“We haven’t had a program win. We’ve been building and building for four years. I just wanted to look them in the eye and challenge them. And they responded.”
The biggest challenge for Pantego Christian was searching for answers on how to slow down Grace Prep standout Tahj Chambers.
He had a monster first half for the Lions which included a 4-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Mason Brewer, a fumble recovery near the goal line that stalled a Panthers drive and a 70-yard kickoff return for a score with three seconds remaining in the second quarter.
It followed a Pantego Christian touchdown, that gave Grace Prep a 15-6 lead.
Chambers, who finished with seven catches for 88 yards, had another touchdown called back due to a holding call on Grace Prep.
“Tahj Chambers is a heck of a player,” Sells said. “I don’t know if we shut him down in the second half, but I was so proud of our seniors. Kaden and (Yomi) Jackson did a great job.”
Pantego Christian double teamed Chambers throughout the second half and held Grace Prep out of the end zone until Samuel Ballesteros caught a 7-yard TD pass from Brewer in the fourth quarter. But, by that time, the Panthers were well on their way to earning their sixth win of the season.
The Panthers produced an avalanche of scores in the second half that the Lions couldn’t overcome after producing only one TD in the first half, coming on a 1-yard run by Jonah Harrison late in the second quarter, who earlier fumbled near the goal line.
Paladini made a rare start at safety and it produced immediate dividends in the third quarter when he intercepted a pass and called his own number three plays later with a 4-yard run on an option play to cut the Grace Prep lead to 15-12.
“We’ve held Kaden out of defense for most of the year,” Sells said. “He’s a play-maker, but we’re protecting our quarterback. He had a great week of practice and preparation and he goes and wins. He finds a way to win. That’s why he’s our quarterback.”
Pantego Christian was only getting warmed up.
Hicks gave the Panthers the lead for good on sixth play of the next Pantego Christian drive when he darted 78 yards for the TD and an 18-15 lead that the Panthers never relinquished.
He later added a 53-yard scoring run. He led all rushers with 157 yards on 11 carries. Paladini wasn’t too far behind with 141 yards on 20 carries.
The Pantego Christian defense got a pair of touchdowns. Jayden Jones outran Brewer on a snap that sailed over the quarterback’s head in the third quarter and pounced on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown and a 24-15 Panther lead.
Dylan Spain produced the final score for Pantego Christian with a scoop fumble and touchdown return for an insurmountable 44-15 lead.
“Our defense is the heart of our team,” Paladini said. “I just don’t feel like we could have done any better.”
With the win, Pantego Christian (6-1) is still on pace for its most wins since 2009, when the Panthers won nine games. Grace Prep fell to 4-2 with the loss.
“That’s very important to us and we haven’t done it in a while,” Paladini said. “We lots of alumni coming back, watching us, supporting us. I couldn’t be any happier.”