GUNTER — Anyone planning to dethrone the Gunter Tigers as Class 3A Division II state champions better come ready to play.
The Tigers used to stifling defense Friday to shut down the Pottsboro Cardinals, 26-0, in a matchup of two of the area’s top Class 3A programs at Tiger Stadium.
Third-ranked Gunter (2-0) limited short-handed Pottsboro to 182 total yards and came up with three interceptions to hand the Cardinals (1-1) their first shutout since 2009.
“Pottsboro is as tough a team as there is around,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “They’ve got a great, great program, great coaching staff and great players. I’m just really proud of our kids coming out here and competing hard.”
The Cardinals were without running back Will Cates and removed quarterback Hunter Watson in the fourth quarter trailing 19-0. Pottsboro coach Matt Poe said the Tigers highlighted the Cardinals’ weaknesses.
“We’ve got a lot to learn,” Poe said. “Giving up big plays defensively is not good. Offensively, we got behind the sticks a bunch tonight with penalties, either a holding call or an illegal procedure call, and you just can’t do that. We’re not good enough to overcome those things right now. We’ve just got to try to execute better offensively. We’ve got a long way to go.”
The Cardinals, who were penalized nine times for 70 yards, faced first-and-20 three times after holding calls and had three first downs called back on penalties.
The defensive performance allowed Gunter to overcome four turnovers of their own, while the Tiger offense struck for three touchdowns of more than 25 yards. Dylan Jantz and Braiden Clopton each scored two touchdowns for the Tigers, two of which came less than 90 seconds apart in the second quarter as Gunter opened up a 19-0 lead.
The Tigers finished with 342 total yards, rushing for 285. Clopton finished with 107 rushing yards on eight carries and caught two passes for 42 yards to lead the team.
“Our defense played well the whole game,” Fieszel said. “I’m really proud of our defense. Special teams, I feel like, overall, we played pretty well. But we had some big miscues in the special teams game. We’ve got to get that cleaned up.
“Offensively, we definitely had some issues, but a lot of good things, too. We’ve got to go back and watch the video and get better this next week.”
Gunter linebacker Zach Lowe said preparation was the key to the Tigers’ success.
“We had a good game plan going in and our team executed,” Lowe said. “Good team chemistry, everyone did their job and we got a shutout.
“I’ve got to give credit to Pottsboro’s offense. A Division I athlete like Hunter Watson … he’s tough.”
Lowe added that such a performance this early in the season against a quality opponent bodes well for the Tigers, who extended their winning streak to 18 games.
“I think it sets a good tone,” he said. “The main part we want to focus on is Week 11. Once the playoffs start, we want to be rolling. We want to get it going. No matter what our record is, we want to get it going fast in the playoffs.”
Gunter set the tone early, forcing a three-and-out on the game’s opening possession and needing just five plays to take the lead for good on Jantz’s 36-yard score. Pottsboro kept it close well into the second quarter, getting a fumble recovery from Cooper Bynum and an interception from Drew Edwards on consecutive series, but was unable to move on offense. The Cardinals turned the ball over on downs in Gunter territory twice before Edwards’ interception at the Cardinal 7.
That swing in field position eventually allowed the Tigers to take command of the game. A three-and-out and a low snap on a 22-yard punt gave Gunter the ball at the Pottsboro 30. Jantz, who rushed for 65 yards on seven carries, scored from 12 yards out five plays later.
After Gunter forced another punt, Clopton took an option pitch 80 yards to score on the next play.
Pottsboro’s defense regrouped in the second half, stopping the Tigers on four consecutive possessions, before Clopton pulled in a 29-yard scoring pass from Daylan Bowyer with 2:46 remaining. Bowyer completed all three of his pass attempts for 57 yards in addition to rushing for 32 yards on 14 carries.
Pottsboro’s best scoring chances came early in the fourth quarter, but two possessions inside the Gunter 30 ended with interceptions. On the second play of the final period, Pottsboro’s Cason McDaniel recovered a muffed punt at the Tiger 36. The Cardinals reached the 14 before Ethan Everson picked off Dylan Kulbeth’s third-down pass in the end zone.
On the next series, a fumble recovery by Eric DeLaCruz gave Pottsboro the ball at the Gunter 27, but Peyton Lowe intercepted Braden Plyler’s pass two plays later.
The Cardinals rushed for 274 yards last week in their 35-33 season-opening victory over Gainesville with both Watson and Cates having 100-yard outings. Gunter allowed just 91 yards on the ground and held Pottsboro to 3.25 yards per attempt. Plyler, who was called up to fill Cates’ spot, was the Cardinals’ leading rusher with 33 yards on nine carries.
Watson, who took a hard hit on the final play of the first half, was removed after the third quarter as a precaution, Poe said. Watson finished 12-of-27 passing for 91 yards with an interception and rushed for 20 yards on eight carries.
“He probably could have played, but there was no sense in risking him in a game like this,” Poe said.