The Permian Panthers faced one of those seminal moments walking out of Ratliff Stadium following a 48-7 loss to Southlake Carroll on Sept. 13.
Coach Jeff Ellison’s young team had taken its share of lumps. A core of young starters needed time to adjust to the speed of varsity football – not to mention the responsibility of starting at an iconic school such as Permian – and it showed.
“We have a bunch of kids who didn’t play very much last year,” Ellison said this week. “Now, we are more football mature. We’ve just gotten better as the season went along.”
In a profession prone to understatement, that may rank near the top of the list of understatements. The loss to Carroll had left Permian 0-3, one of the worst starts in school history, yet the Panthers rallied. They put together a convincing win against Palm Desert (Calif.) and another against Los Fresnos. The wins sent the Panthers into District 2-6A play with momentum and, more importantly, confidence.
“Those two non-district wins were good, and I thought the win against [Amarillo] Tascosa was a huge confidence booster for us,” Ellison said.
After the win over Tascosa, a 35-27 win in which Permian jumped out to a 28-13 lead, the Panthers had won four straight and put themselves in contention for the district title. A 62-0 win over neighboring Midland marked a fifth straight win. Then came an untimely stumble at Frenship.
“Things just didn’t go our way,” Ellison said of the 24-13 loss in which his team gained just 276 yards and didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter while turning the ball over twice.
Fortunately, the Panthers had no time to hang their heads. That’s the beauty of finishing the regular season with your fiercest rival: it’s the only game that matters, and it requires all your focus, energy and, well, anything else you can muster to prepare.
“In preparation for Midland Lee, I thought our coaching staff did a great job putting the plan together and our kids were focused all week,” Ellison said.
The game against Lee had plenty on the line: a year’s worth of bragging rights in one of the state’s most storied rivalries, a district championship, playoff seeding, and for Lee a perfect season and the school’s first outright district championship since 2000.
The Rebels stormed into Ratliff Stadium Friday and scored first, but a missed extra point gave the Panthers a whiff of confidence. Ellison’s team inhaled fully and played its best game of the season.
“We played great and made some big-time plays and beat a great team,” he said after taking a few days to digest Permian’s 42-39 win.
Permian led 21-18 at the half and spent the break knowing that Midland Lee coach Clint Hartman would make some halftime adjustments and come out fighting. And they did. Shemar Davis’ short touchdown put Midland Lee ahead 25-21, but Permian quarterback Easton Hernandez made his team didn’t trail for long.
He capped a 6-play, 75-yard drive with a 60-yard scamper to reclaim the lead, then pushed his team ahead 35-25 with a 1-yard run that followed a 45-yard completion to Amarion Garrett. He added a 27-yard touchdown with 2:12 left to put Permian ahead 42-32, but the last 120 seconds proved anything but easy.
Lee’s Mikey Serrano connected with Loic Fouonji for 16 yards to close the gap to 42-39 with 1:29 left. Permian recovered the onside kick but couldn’t kill the clock and had to play a bit more defense to keep the Rebels from completing a stunning comeback, and they did.
“We had a close call following the onside kick,” Ellison admitted later. “We had to survive that last chance, and we did. It was a great game. The feeling was electric after, but I think everyone stayed pretty calm during the game.”
None calmer than Hernandez, who rushed for a game-high 149 yards with three scores, passed or 142 yards and a score and caught a touchdown pass as well.
“We have matured a lot since that 0-3 start,” Ellison said. “To end up where we are….Our defense has really stepped up and is playing well as an entire unit, and our offense is starting to make plays in big situations.”
As Friday’s playoff opener approaches, the 6-4 Panthers find themselves hosting El Paso Franklin as the District 2-6A champs and top Division I seed. The teams met in week two, with Franklin cruising to a 49-28 win. Ellison’s seen his team change considerably since that early September meeting, both in maturity and personnel.
“We had a lot of injuries early – and I don’t say that as an excuse,” Ellison said. “We had just played DeSoto and that week turned out to be a very emotional one. We were without five starters who will be able to play for us this week.”
Having a full roster and the confidence from winning the district title at the expense of a bitter rival has Permian primed to make a statement.
“Any time you can end the regular season with a win and a championship, that gives you extra confidence and momentum,” Ellison said. “Hopefully, it gives us the boost we need. We’re ready to play a lot more football.”
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