High School Football

Bankston, Panthers look to handle business in playoffs

By Dennis Silva II | Sports Editor
Posted 12/9/20

As a junior last season, Paetow running back Damon Bankston rushed for 1,097 yards and eight touchdowns, with 286 receiving yards and four more touchdowns. Bankston averaged 8.4 yards per carry and 22.6 yards per catch.

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High School Football

Bankston, Panthers look to handle business in playoffs

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As a junior last season, Paetow running back Damon Bankston rushed for 1,097 yards and eight touchdowns, with 286 receiving yards and four more touchdowns. Bankston averaged 8.4 yards per carry and 22.6 yards per catch.

It wasn’t enough.

“After last year,” Bankston said, “I knew I had to work on my game.”

Bankston wanted to be the total package—fast and tough. He knew he’d be the No. 1 back this season after sharing ballcarrying duties with Jonathan Jolly last season. So, he put on 10 pounds of muscle while focusing on sustaining his speed.

“I took my game to another level, where I can still be elusive but even harder to tackle,” said Bankston, now 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds.

Defensive coordinators can attest to that. Bankston has torched any and all opposing coverages this season, compiling 1,389 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 8.6 yards per carry. He also has 71 yards on nine catches and 24 yards on two kick returns.

That type of production is why many around the Paetow program are puzzled as to why Bankston does not have the attention from colleges that some of his peers do. He has been the offensive cornerstone for a young program that has 16 wins to four losses in its last two seasons. Bankston runs a 4.44 40-yard dash and bench-presses 255 pounds.

Colleges should be breaking down his door to get his commitment.

“I don’t know,” coach B.J. Gotte said. “It’s a great question. I try and tell people, and shout from the rafters, that they need to put this kid on their team. COVID has a lot to do with it. Had he been able to go through spring football, run track and go to summer camps, he would have a lot more attention. But it is what it is.”

One overlooked element of Bankston’s game—one of many—is his durability. To prepare for being the primary target of opposing defensive game plans this season, he learned to never take a rep off during practice. Ever.

He works so hard during practices, Bankston said, that games come easy to him. And while offers and recruiting may consume the minds of others, Bankston is preoccupied only with getting better and leading his team.

“I obviously feel like I’m one of the top talents out there,” Bankston said. “I feel like I’m really slept on. But it’s God’s plan, really. Whatever God has in store for me, I’m just going to follow through and roll with it.”

Bankston and the Panthers have rolled right back into the playoffs in just the program’s third year of varsity play. Paetow (8-1) plays Baytown Lee (7-2) in their Class 5A, Division I bi-district playoff matchup on Friday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at Stallworth Stadium in Baytown.

The Panthers fell to Whitehouse, 35-10, last year in a bitter playoff debut.

“Last year, when we got into the playoffs, we were just so excited to be there, we didn’t focus on winning,” Bankston said. “We were in the moment too much. This year’s team, that’s not an option. We’re going to play to handle business. Nothing more.”

Gotte said he has a team that “competes to win.” That wasn’t necessarily the case last season for a young program that was 8-3 and making its first playoff appearance after a 3-7 inaugural varsity season.

“Last year, I felt like we got there and we showed up to play in a playoff game, and Whitehouse showed up to win a playoff game,” Gotte said. “This year, we’re showing up to win a playoff game. That’s the difference.”

The Panthers have experience this season. Bankston is a year better. Junior quarterback C.J. Dumas Jr. has another year of varsity under his belt. The defense is more consistent and comfortable with another year in coordinator Jason Hinkelman’s alignment-oriented scheme.

“We’re a lot more connected as a team,” senior defensive back Carl Simon said. “We have a lot more chemistry. Everybody connects with everyone else and everyone trusts everyone else. We play for each other.”

This Paetow senior class was with the program as freshmen when the school opened in the fall of 2017. Gotte said he loves the culture, camaraderie and chemistry built by the seniors.

“They’re playing hard and playing for one another, and they’re competing to win,” he said. “I feel like they’re not just happy to be here. Hopefully we can back it up.”

A perfect example was the Panthers’ 40-21 regular season win over Class 6A Deer Park in a non-district game on Thursday, Dec. 3. It was a meaningless game with nothing at stake. But the Panthers played as if their season was on the line.

Deer Park went up 21-17 in the third quarter, and Paetow responded with 23 unanswered points to run away with the convincing win.

“Games are never over with us,” Simon said. “I feel like even if we make mistakes, we know we can pick ourselves back up and keep going. This team finishes.”

After scoring two touchdowns on his first three carries, Bankston was rarely used the rest of the first half as junior Jacob Brown and sophomore Damyrion Phillips got some time in the backfield. Once Deer Park rallied from a 17-0 deficit, however, Bankston was put back in. He promptly scored on a 30-yard run to put the Panthers back on top. A 46-yard scamper down the left side set up an easy 1-yard score by senior fullback Randle Kelley moments later.

“He’s a senior and he knows he’s the guy,” Gotte said of Bankston. “He’s taken on that responsibility and he takes pride in that. You look at the second half, we leaned on him and he responded and did what we expect him to do. He knows this is his year and he’s done a great job leading bis guys.”

Bankston is taking these playoffs personally. The Panthers are following his lead.

“It’s a lot on me, but it’s a lot on everyone,” Bankston said. “We’re all one. The O-line does a good job, C.J. does a good job, the defense does a tremendous job. I feel if we can just play as a team, nobody can beat us.”

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