No.2 Panthers prowl and growl during 42-6 win over BNL in sectional semifinal

BNL’s Memphis Louden darts through an opening during Friday night’s sectional clash with No.2 Evansville Reitz. The Panthers conquered the Stars 42-6.

By Justin Sokeland

BEDFORD – The end was not justice for the journey. Bedford North Lawrence probably deserved a better fate, but there was no mortal power to stop the clock as it mercilessly wasted away on a sectional semifinal and a season. Evansville Reitz, ranked No.2 in Class 4A for a reason, was just too potent, living up to its ranking and reputation.

Powered by a slick passing attack and a defense that gave ground grudgingly, the Panthers were in prowl mode as they growled to the Sectional 24 championship game, ending BNL’s 2023 campaign with a dominating victory in the second round of the postseason.

Reitz junior quarterback Ben Davies threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns as the Panthers pounced on the Stars 42-6 on Friday night. Reitz (11-0) advanced to clash with rival Evansville Memorial in next week’s title battle, while the Stars bowed out with a 7-4 record.

For all the hype about Reitz’s stingy defense, rightfully so, it was the air attack that doomed BNL. All-purpose back Roland Vera caught 7 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns, including a spectacular 73-yard bomb that triggered the running clock on the first play of the fourth quarter. What was once a one-point game early in the second quarter got out of hand rapidly as the Panthers scored on five of six possessions during that span.

If Reitz was waiting for a complete-game performance, it came at BNL’s expense.

“When it’s all clicking, it’s a fun group to watch,” said Reitz coach Cory Brunson, who guided the Panthers within one win of their first sectional crown since 2016. “It was good to see that we put it together in all phases. When this group can do that, they can be scary.”

Explosive plays were the difference. Reitz had six of 20-plus yards, plus an interception that gave Reitz command midway through the second quarter. From that point, the Stars were powerless to prevent the inevitable.

BNL’s Cal Gates prepares for contact with Reitz defenders. Gates was limited to 34 rushing yards.

Reitz scored first, and rapidly. Davies hit Hayden Summers for 39 yards on his first pass (a quick receiver screen that would be a common theme) and found Vera for 20 yards on his second. Two plays later, Levi Oxley muscled home from two yards.

BNL came back from that. Kline Woodward’s booming 63-yard punt pinned the Panthers at the 10, and the Stars forced Reitz’s only punt. BNL took advantage of the short field with Gates blasting over for the score. While the extra point failed, BNL had found a way to crack a defense that was allowing only 7.5 points per game. Unfortunately, that would be all the Panthers would allow.

Reitz responded with a 26-yard touchdown pass (Davies to Vera, of course) for a 14-6 lead. Three plays later, Ayden Wells picked off a pass over the middle and returned the interception deep into BNL territory. Troy Davis converted the turnover into points with a 6-yard touchdown run and 21-6 advantage.

The walls came tumbling down on BNL in the third. Reitz’s first drive after intermission featured a 35-yard Davies connection to Summers and a 1-yard Oxley TD blast. After the Stars were stopped on fourth down near midfield, the Panthers pulled away with a 45-yard drive, capped by a 16-yard scoring strike from Davies to Summers. Then came the Vera bomb and the running clock for the final 11:47. Mercy, indeed.

Evansville Reitz’s Roland Vera steps away from a tackle. Vera caught 7 passes for 179 yards.

“Offensively, we had some stuff going in the first half,” BNL coach Derrick Barker said. “But we only got one stop. We didn’t play real well defensively. We were kind of looking around a little too much. They’re good enough, when you’re not playing well, they’ll take advantage of it.

“They hit us on a couple of screens, they execute those real well. Once they got it up to three scores, it got out of hand.”

Reitz’s signature stat had been its tackle for loss and sacks. BNL avoided that, allowing only one sack. But the running game was shut down. Memphis Louden completed 14 of 30 passes for 127 yards (with two picks, although one on the last desperation play of the first half was meaningless). BNL could not sustain any drives.

“They didn’t get the sacks, but they still pressured us,” Barker said. “Overall, it was the speed and physicality of the defense. They don’t give up the explosive plays, you know you have to put together drives. We were able to do it once. We didn’t play clean enough to stay ahead of the chains.

BNL’s Gabe Nelson lowers his shoulder for extra yardage after making a catch on the sideline.

“I don’t know that they’re 36 points better than us, but they were definitely 36 points better than us tonight. That’s what matters.”

Davies was 12 of 16 (with a first-half interception by BNL’s Maddox Ray) in the air. Davis added 55 yards on the ground. BNL had only one first down in the second half until the last drive.

“I was definitely pleased,” Brunson said. “They were a scary team. Our defense has been our most consistent group. If we can get a couple of scores lead, teams have to throw the ball, and we’ve got guys up front who can pressure and guys who can cover. We defend well most weeks.“

BNL’s bid for its second sectional title ended in tears and hugs rather than glory. The Stars, who are now 0-5 in the series with Reitz, will now bid farewell to 12 seniors.

“I hate it,” Barker said. “They deserved to be conference champions and sectional champions. I hate that I wasn’t able to get it for them. But they have a lot to be proud of. Two winning seasons in a row, two sectional wins (in back-to-back seasons) in a row, they’re a tremendous group. They’ve built this program back up that we’re on the trajectory we want to be. It’s all due to their hard work and togetherness, being a great group of kids.”

Memorial conquered Jasper 17-14 in the other sectional semifinal.

Reitz’s Ayden Wells heads for the goal line after making an interception in the first half.

Evan. Reitz 7 14 14 7 -42

Bedford NL 0 6 0 0 – 6

First quarter

Reitz – Levi Oxley, 2 run (Keifer Sanderson kick), 4:55

Second quarter

BNL – Cal Gates, 1 run (kick failed), 10:42; Reitz – Roland Vera, 26 pass from Ben Davies (Sanderson kick), 7:25; Reitz – Troy Davis, 6 run (Sanderson kick), 4:57

Third quarter

Reitz – Oxley, 1 run (Sanderson kick), 8:44; Reitz – Hayden Summers, 16 pass from Davies (Sanderson kick), 4:07

Fourth quarter

Reitz – Vera, 73 pass from Davies (Sanderson kick), 11:47

Team statistics

Reitz – First downs 12 (5 by run, 7 by pass); Rushing 26-99; Passing 12-16-1-278; Total yards 377; Fumbles 1 (lost 0); Penalties 5-59

BNL – First downs 12 (4 by run, 7 by pass, 1 by penalty); Rushing 21-58; Passing 14-30-2-127; Total yards 185; Fumbles 0; Penalties 3-15

Individual statistics

Rushing – (Reitz) Vera 6-28, Davis 10-55, Oxley 5-17, McClarney 2-3, Coates 1-2, Tenbarge 2-(-6); (BNL) Louden 9-26, Gates 10-34, Childs 2-(-2)

Passing – (Reitz) Davies 12-16-1-278; (BNL) Louden 14-30-2-127

Receiving – (Reitz) Summers 3-87, Vera 7-179, Leach 1-3, Shane 1-9; (BNL) Pedersen 1-2, Gates 5-53, Nelson 3-19, Gilbert 1-9, Childs 1-13, Short 3-31