CELINA — Part 3 of a thriving intersectional rivalry between Celina and Gilmer carries as much excitement as Parts 1 and 2 did.
After a humiliating 67-14 loss in the 2014 state semifinals, the Bobcats got payback last season in a 49-44 victory that sent Celina to the championship game. This year, realignment placed the Bobcats (11-2) and Buckeyes (12-1) in the same Class 4A Division II region.
So, just as many expected in the preseason, it’s the rubber match between two powerhouse programs which own a combined 17 state finals appearances between them. The only difference is this time, the much-anticipated clash occurs a playoff round sooner.
“They’re a great football team,” Celina head coach Bill Elliott said of Gilmer. “They’re very talented, just like they are every year.”
The two teams will return to the scene of last year’s collision — Mesquite Memorial Stadium — to decide the Region II championship at 7:30 p.m. Friday night. The winner will advance to play either Seminole or Sweetwater in the state semifinals next week.
Celina is 99-25-2 all-time in the playoffs, and on Friday will attempt to become only the fifth school in Texas high school football history to reach 100 wins. Refugio, which is still playing, is the leader with 112 wins as of this week, followed by Katy at 107, Southlake Carroll at 102, and Mart at 101.
Going into last year’s game as a heavy underdog — taking into account the whipping the Buckeyes had handed out the year before — the Bobcats recovered from an early 14-0 deficit, took the lead in the third quarter and held on for the win, sealing it with a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown by Shane Gerths with 1:19 left.
Travis Tolbert also had a pick-six for the Bobcats. Quarterback Conner Pingleton ran for 155 yards and two touchdowns and passed for two more, and Jarren Alexander rushed for 136 yards and a long TD.
“Last year we had a great group of kids that had their heart set on what they were doing,” Elliott said. “That group of guys last year just rose up and played real well. They fought with a lot of heart and they stayed in the game. And things went our way some. We didn’t get down in a deep hole because of mistakes, and that helped a lot.”
Pingleton is the only returning player for Celina who figured in the scoring in last year’s win, other than kicker Eduardo Paulino, who was 7-of-7 on point-after attempts.
Last year, of course, was a much happier memory for the Bobcats than the one from 2014, when Celina left SMU’s Gerald J. Ford Stadium the recipient of its worst playoff loss in school history.
Gilmer scored on its first five drives to lead 33-0 after one quarter and finished with 502 yards, while Celina turned the ball over four times — twice on Gilmer’s 2-yard-line — and suffered numerous mistakes in the kicking game.
“That was a tough deal,” Elliott said. “We started off with a bad kickoff, and then we had a bad snap (on a punt) and it snowballed from there. Plus, that was probably the most talented team I’ve ever seen in my 25 years of coaching, especially at our level. A team that had seven Division I players on it. It was hard for us to match up with seven guys like that.”
This time around, the Bobcats have not one, but two former Buckeyes on their coaching staff.
Nick York is in his third season as wide receivers coach, assistant offensive coordinator and passing game coordinator at Celina, and was a member of the 2003 Gilmer team that beat the Bobcats in their first-ever meeting in that year’s area round. This year, York has a former Buckeye teammate as a colleague: Michael Tucker, who joined the Bobcat staff this year.
York and Tucker both know the type of wide-open spread attack the Buckeyes operate out of. It’ll be a different look from the run-first teams the Bobcats have grown accustomed to since the middle of district play. Gilmer has won nine straight since a Week 4 non-district road loss to Carthage and has been held to fewer than 40 points only three times all year.
Quarterback Aaron “Poppy” Brown has passed for 4,314 yards and 42 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. Brown has quite a coterie of speedy receivers in LaMarcus Morton, Red Jones and Qua Heath, and running back Kelton Collier has rushed for more than 800 yards.
“They’re throwing the ball a lot more than they have in the past,” Elliott said. “That’s something different that they’re doing. Their receivers all run 4.4 or better, and we don’t have a lot of those floating around.”
On the Bobcats’ side, senior running back John Franklin was back at practice Monday afternoon after suffering an ankle sprain late in the third quarter of last Friday’s 23-19 win against Texarkana Pleasant Grove.
“He’s good to go,” Elliott said. “We did round-the-clock treatment with him over the weekend. He seems to be in pretty good shape.”
Franklin needs just 10 rushing yards on Friday night to reach 1,500 for the season. Junior Ismael Ortiz stepped in for Franklin last week and finished as Celina’s leading rusher for the day, with 18 carries for 123 yards.
“He’s a great straight-ahead runner and he makes good little quick cuts,” Elliott said of Ortiz. “He got a lot of experience as a sophomore playing the ‘S’ spot where John is now when Jarren was out last year. He’s able to come in and run that football tough and hard. He really stepped up.”
Also returning to practice following an injury is Celina junior defensive back Skyler Bohall, which frees up sophomore Ryan Nebeker to play more on offense.
Now that the Bobcats are playing East Texas teams more frequently, Mesquite Memorial is starting to become Celina’s home away from home — much like Pennington Field in Bedford became in the 1990s and early 2000s when the Bobcats drew more pairings with Central Texas opponents in Class 2A.
Celina, which won a state title at the stadium in 2005, will play for the third time under the radio tower this season, and of course will face Gilmer there for the second time in as many seasons.
“I was really shocked that they would play us there again after last year, but we discussed a couple of other places and it’s such a nice venue,” Elliott said. “The locker room facilities are great; they redid those a year ago. We love going there.
“The only thing that’s bad is the traffic on a Friday afternoon, which is kind of rough, but with the drive it ends up being the same for both of us with the traffic for us and them coming from East Texas. It’s a big stadium which is good or the crowd, because Gilmer travels well and they always have a good crowd at their games.”
Elliott likes the mindset of his players going into their third meeting with Gilmer in as many years.
“You could tell they had the excitement Saturday morning,” he said. “We had a workout Saturday morning and they were electric. Usually on a Saturday morning they’re all tired and draggy, but they were all in the weight room. They were chattering the whole time we worked out.
“I think that’s why we had a lack of focus last week. They knew who was coming next. They know what kind of game it’s going to be and what the matchup’s going to be. They were all there last year and they saw it or played in it. It’s going to be a fun game.”