GUNTER — Nick Gonzalez lined up for a 39-yard field goal in the third round of the playoffs. His kick was straight, true and plenty long enough that you’d never know it was his first attempt in a varsity game.
Of course, before the Tigers’ region semifinal victory over Henrietta last week, the senior had just one other game — the area round victory — under his belt.
“Last time was eighth grade. I didn’t know what to expect. It was trial and error at first to get it right,” Gonzalez said. “I have soccer, cross-country and basketball all at the same time. I came to the decision (before the season) with not playing.”
When classmate Mason Mazerolle tore his ACL in the playoff opener, Gunter’s advantage on special teams seemed to take a hit.
Junior Daylan Bower filled in for the rest of the night and then Gonzalez took over in the area round against Hooks.
“We pulled him off the basketball court. He’s a really good athlete,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “He came and said he’d be willing to kick. We looked at him just as a kickoff person. Then we had him kick some field goals and it was natural.”
Added Gonzalez: “Zach Lowe came up to me second period and asked if I could kick and more players flooded in and asked if I could kick.”
It is just another example of how the undefeated Tigers have kept winning without missing a beat. Just like how a ground attack by committee helped hold down the fort while running back Colson Stovall was sidelined in the middle of district play.
“If there was any guy you wouldn’t want to lose it was Mason. We’ve had Zach Lowe replace him at punter. We’ve got Nick at kicker. We’ve got Trey Carr replacing him in the secondary and Peyton Lowe and a couple guys for him at receiver,” Fieszel said. “Talk about guys stepping up. We’ve had four or five guys step up just for that.”
This is the attitude that Gunter (13-0) brings with it against Winona (8-5) in the Class 3A Division II Region II final at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at at Citizens Bank Stadium in Forney.
“I didn’t realize how serious the bond was until I got in the locker room,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t see it before.”
The winner will face either Canadian, the Class 2A Division I champion the previous two seasons, or Sonora in the state semifinals next week. The Tigers have never made it to the state semifinals.
Gunter reached the region final for the fourth time in seven seasons with its 31-3 victory against Henrietta. Stovall had 20 carries for 170 yards and two touchdowns, Carr ran for two touchdowns and the Bearcats were held to just 128 yards and a field goal as the first half expired.
The Tigers set a school record for victories, bettering 1999, 2007 and 2014, and also set the program’s single-season scoring mark at 539 points, breaking the record of 537 in 2007.
Gunter’s defense has also produced a strong showing each week. Only two opponents have scored more than two touchdowns against the unit — including Pottsboro, which is in the 3A Division I Region II final — and the Tigers have held six opponents in single digits, including a pair of shutouts.
Last week Gunter was just the second team to keep Henrietta under 22 points after holding Hooks to its second-lowest point total (13) in the area round and is allowing 202.4 yards per game overall and only 90.7 on the ground.
“We try to stop the things they’re good at and what they want to do,” Fieszel said. “Slow them down enough and get them off the field enough. We want them to have to earn it.”
Winona is seeking to eliminate its third straight District 6-3A opponent. The Wildcats were able to rally against Whitewright for a 35-28 victory, holding the Tigers scoreless in the second half after Whitewright was up, 28-21, at halftime.
Deundre Wheeler totaled 28 carries for 178 yards and a touchdown while Braxton Kincade threw a pair of touchdown passes to Dakota Pullman and ran for the tying TD three minutes into the third quarter and Quindarius Johnson notched the game-winning points on a 20-yard run with 5:20 left in the game.
Whitewright built its seven-point lead at the break with a full-on ground attack. All 53 snaps were rushing attempts that gained 259 yards and took advantage of a pair of turnovers.
A week earlier, the Wildcats beat Leonard, 51-12, with Wheeler running for 321 yards and five touchdowns, Johnson adding a TD run, Keylon Kincade catching a touchdown pass from Braxton Kincade and Pablo Tarango kicking two field goals for the Wildcats.
Winona ran for 419 yards and led 18-0 at halftime before widening the gap in the third quarter.
“Their running back is a spark for them but I think the new quarterback — Braxton Kincade — has brought a new element to them,” Fieszel said. “He’s going to be a problem to contain.”
The Wildcats earned a 52-27 victory over Daingerfield in their playoff-opener, which was the program’s first postseason win since 1987.
It has been something of a surprising run for Winona, which entered the postseason as the fourth seed out of District 8-3A (II). The team opened the year with three losses in four games (Alto, Elysian Fields and Redwater) and then was beaten by Harmony and Lone Oak in district play.
“They’re hot and they’re playing really well,” Fieszel said. “We’ve been there. We were 6-4 and made the region final. I know what that’s like to find yourself late in the season.”