Oct 6, 2012
Phillip Bell punted the ball away and walked calmly toward E.E. Smith's sideline with less than two minutes remaining in a 37-20 victory at Jack Britt. He placed his helmet on a bench, looked at the scoreboard and repeatedly pumped his right fist.
All the hard work coach Duran McLaurin, his staff and the seniors have put in over the last four seasons is finally paying off.
With a decisive win against the short-handed Buccaneers on Friday, the Golden Bulls are in prime position to unseat Britt as Mid-South 4-A Conference champions. It's been a long and difficult road back for a program that was coming off an 0-11 season when McLaurin took over in 2009. E.E. Smith has gotten better and better, but Bell suffered two injuries that prevented the team from reaching its potential last year.
This season, with a healthy Bell directing the offense as a dynamic run-or-pass threat, the Golden Bulls stand 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the league.
"It killed me last year, and that's why I've been trying to give it my all this year," Bell said.
E.E. Smith hasn't earned at least a share of a league championship since 2003, when it split the Two Rivers title with South View. If Smith can beat the Tigers and Cape Fear in its final two regular-season games, an outright championship belongs to the Golden Bulls.
That's a position Jack Britt has held regularly over the last five years, but it played Friday without quarterback Mark McRae, who spent part of the week in a hospital battling an illness. When the game started, the Mid-South's top offensive player from a year ago stood outside the field, watching from behind a fence with a jacket covering his No. 4 jersey and a pink knit cap providing warmth to his head.
He climbed to the fourth row of bleachers as Bell, the top player in the league this year, led E.E. Smith to a score on its first possession.
Bell is listed at only 5-foot-10 and 174 pounds. With 4.37 speed in the 40-yard dash, big targets at receiver and unquestioned leadership ability, he's the perfect player to run the Golden Bulls' offense. After throwing for 165 yards and rushing for 109 on Friday, he's over 1,000 yards in both categories this season. He also punted effectively, twice eclipsing 50 yards, and returned one kickoff.
"Phillip is the glue that holds this thing together," McLaurin said. "He could have had this kind of year last year for us if he hadn't gotten hurt."
Facing Durham Hillside early last season, Bell dropped back to pass and rolled out to avoid a blitz. He injured his collarbone and missed more than a month, finally returning for a win against Terry Sanford. A week later, Bell injured an ankle against Jack Britt and missed most of the second half of a 35-6 loss.
Bell played quarterback again in the regular-season finale, which the Golden Bulls lost to fall into a tie for fourth place. He led E.E. Smith to a playoff upset of Southern Durham and vowed to get stronger in the offseason, working "day and night" to build up the muscles around his collarbone.
He was thrown a curveball on opening night. The Golden Bulls were missing 6-2 receiver Ismail Williamson, so McLaurin moved Bell to the edge and inserted sophomore Harold Herbin at quarterback.
Bell caught four passes in a tight victory against Overhills.
"I'm happy to play wherever they need me," he said. "I'll go in a heartbeat."
He was just fine at quarterback Friday, breaking loose for a 40-yard run late in the second quarter and scoring the go-ahead touchdown from the 3 on the next snap. He snuck into the end zone on the final play of the half and delivered a 17-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Faison early in the third quarter.
An improved defense is a big part of E.E. Smith's success, and Alex Williams' punt block was the momentum-swinging play that set up the half-ending TD. It's not a one-man show, but Bell was the player almost everyone in white, gold and blue flocked toward when the sideline celebrations began.
He remained a popular figure afterward, and his father, Charlie, had a camera around his neck to document the special moment.
"I've got a good feeling inside," Bell's dad said. "It has me a little giggly and at the same time proud. I'm proud of what he's doing and the way he's doing it."
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