Three days before Christmas, the rest of the state got the chance to see exactly what Lufkin fans already knew. Never count out the 2001 Panthers.
After overcoming everything in their way the previous week, the odds were once again stacked against the Panthers. Austin Westlake had an offense that averaged 49 points per game.
It flashed that offense early on in the state title game, rolling out to a 21-3 advantage. In the process, Lufkin’s Reggie McNeal left the field temporarily with an ankle injury. It would be enough to make normal teams wilt under the pressure.
Lufkin never blinked.
The Panthers calmly erased that deficit then dominated the fourth quarter against a team that had knocked out Vince Young the prior week.
And in the end, it was the Panthers lifting head coach John Outlaw onto their shoulders in celebration after an exciting 38-24 victory.
In getting the win, McNeal played through his injury to put an exclamation mark on a spectacular career. He finished the championship game with 223 yards and three touchdowns through the air and 163 yards and a score on the ground.
Jeremie Berry was his top target with four catches for 187 yards and a pair of long touchdown catches that put the Panthers back in the game before halftime.
Meanwhile Westlake finished with 455 yards but could only manage a single field goal in the final 30 minutes of the game. Their 24 points were just under half of their 49 points per game average for the season.
Westlake seized control of the game in the opening minutes with Chad Schroeder running for a 57-yard touchdown run and later hitting Scott Ballew for a 49-yard touchdown pass that made the score 21-3 with 6:03 left in the first half.
With McNeal nursing an ankle injury, it looked like an uphill climb for the Pack.
However, it didn’t take long to see that the Panthers weren’t fazed by the pressure of the game or the 18-point deficit.
Less than a minute later, McNeal hit Berry for a 69-yard touchdown pass.
When Berry hauled in a 45-yard touchdown pass on the following possession, it was obvious the Panthers weren’t going anywhere.
The Panthers finally got their first lead of the game late in the third quarter when Berry had yet another long catch, setting up an Anthony Gibson two-yard touchdown reception from McNeal that made it 24-21 midway through the third quarter.
Austin Westlake tied the game in the final minute of the third quarter on a field goal.
The play that finally put the Panthers in control came early in the fourth quarter. Head Coach John Outlaw, never one to shy away from a gamble, came up with the gutsiest call of his Lufkin career.
With the teams battling in a tie game, Lufkin lined up in punt formation. However instead of going with the safe play, Outlaw called for a fake, sending a direct snap to Chad Kegler. He took the snap and ran 28 yards into scoring position.
Shortly after that play, McNeal had one of the key highlights in a highlight reel of a season. Scrambling to his right, he ran out of running room, causing him to change direction. He then scrambled all the way across the field and followed the block of Jamar Ballard into the end zone for an 18-yard score.
That seemed to be the knockout blow for the Pack. Carlus Anders picked off a pass after Westlake had driven into its territory and Terry Williams scored on a five-yard run in the final minute to make the final 38-24.
After hurdling several obstacles and passing every test in its way, the Panthers were the 2001 state champions.