Gunter tries to maintain big-game hex over Holliday

·5 min read
Gunter's Ivy Hellman forces a fumble on a sack of Dublin's Chris Teten in the Tigers' region semifinal victory.
Gunter's Ivy Hellman forces a fumble on a sack of Dublin's Chris Teten in the Tigers' region semifinal victory.

GUNTER — The Tigers’ routine remains the same and at this point it is easy to follow that plan because of all the recent success they have piled up.

No matter if the opponent is a new face or one which keeps popping up, Gunter takes on the challenge with a narrow focus that belies the importance of the outcome.

“I think there would be a lot of pressure but we don’t have a real big view of things,” Tigers head coach Jake Fieszel said. “What we try to focus on is the small things every week.”

All the small things have built a foundation producing big results and Gunter (13-0) will look to add another line to a recent sparkling resume as it faces Holliday (13-0) in the Class 3A Division II Region II final at 7 p.m. on Friday at Justin Northwest.

The winner faces either Abnernathy or Lubbock Roosevelt in the state semifinals next week.

The Tigers are trying to win their sixth straight region crown and continue the program’s best stretch in school history with another spot in the final four.

A third straight senior class is playing for the right to know nothing but that kind of season for the entirety of their high school careers.

“That’s a credit to our kids. They’ve bought into what we do,” Fieszel said. “I think our kids believe in the way that we work. They execute the plan. We try to keep it real process-oriented.”

This is the third time in four years these teams have met in the region final — and fourth in five years in the playoffs overall — and Gunter has kept the Eagles from advancing to the state semifinals for just the second time in school history and first since 1996. This is the 10th time Holliday has been this far during that stretch and has yet to break through to the final four again.

“We’ve played them multiple times at this point so we have a ton of respect for their coaches, players and their program,” Fieszel said. “We know exactly what we’re going to get on Friday night.”

Gunter is coming off a 62-20 victory against Dublin in the region semis that, despite the score, was one of the Tigers’ toughest games.

The Lions were down just 13-7 late in the second quarter after putting together a scoring drive but Hudson Graham returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards for a touchdown and then Gunter had four touchdowns in the third quarter to build a 49-7 lead.

“You’re in the third round, you’re playing a good football team with good players playing their best,” Fieszel said. “Dublin was that. Our kids did a good job of hanging in there.”

It was the first time this season the Tigers led by less than 21 points at half-time. Gunter also allowed three touchdowns for the first time this year.

Ethan Sloan had 10 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown, Ashton Bennett totaled 122 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries, Graham ran for a TD and threw a TD pass to go with his special teams score, Cole Lemons had two catches for 41 yards and a touchdown and Saul Rodriguez, Brayden Hinton and Cannon Lemberg had touchdowns on the ground for the Tigers, who ran 46 times for 479 yards.

Gunter scored 62 points for the third straight game to mark the first time since the opening three contests of the 1968 season — when the Tigers played at the eight-man level — the program had produced three consecutive games with at least that many points.

Holliday set a school record for wins, and is in double digits for the fifth straight season, after advancing to the fourth round with a 21-14 victory in overtime against Bells to deprive the region final from being an all-District 8-3A (II) and Grayson County re-match.

The Eagles led 7-0 through three quarters, then had to score with 1:22 remaining to force overtime before Jaxx Johnson caught a seven-yard TD pass from Peyton Marchand to open overtime. Holliday then stopped Bells’ possession to preserve the win.

Johnson finished with two touchdowns, including the tying TD run, and had 13 carries for 78 yards while Marchand was 8-of-13 passing with two touchdowns but only for 60 yards and a pair of interceptions as Holliday gained just 207 yards.

It was the second straight week the Eagles eliminated a team from 8-3A (II). Leonard almost knocked Holliday out but came up short in a 35-28 contest. That also turned out to be the most points allowed by the Eagles — no one had scored more than 16 points until then.

Holliday’s offense has been a mixed bag. It has scored in the 20s (four) almost as many times as it has reached the 50s (five).

Austin Jones leads the team with 721 yards and 12 touchdowns on 92 carries but Johnson isn’t far behind with 107 carries for 686 yards and 22 TDs.

Marchand has 47 carries for 362 yards and 11 scores and has completed 73-of-139 passes for 1,275 yards and 14 touchdowns with seven interceptions.

Ethan Faulkner is the top receiver at 18 catches for 373 yards and five touchdowns. Ethan Twilligear and Hayden Strealy are the only others in double figures.

Holliday has yet to score more than 13 points against Gunter but the Eagles haven’t been blown out in the last three match-ups, having held the Tigers under 28 points each time.

“Every year is different but we know there’s things we’re going to have to be ready for,” Fieszel said. “They’ve changed things every single time we’ve played them. The plays don’t change but the presentation changes.”

Class 3A Division II Region II Final

What: Gunter vs. Holliday

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Justin Northwest

This article originally appeared on Herald Democrat: Gunter tries to maintain its big-game hex over Holliday

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