WICHITA FALLS — The Sherman Bearcats won’t have to worry about backing into the playoffs.
While Thursday’s District 5-5A results clinched a postseason berth for the Bearcats before they took the field Friday at Memorial Stadium, they showed they could earn their own way in with a 51-26 victory over Wichita Falls High.
Nathaniel Omayebu rushed for four touchdowns and Blaise Bentsen accounted for 304 total yards and two touchdowns as Sherman (5-4, 3-2) left no doubt as to its future heading into this week’s Battle of the Ax.
“I’m happy for our kids, happy for our coaching staff and I’m really, really happy for our community,” second-year Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said. “It’s something we’ve been striving to do since we got here. It’s a great feeling to know that we are in the playoffs.
“I’m really happy for these seniors. They’ve worked really, really hard.”
Sherman, in the playoffs for the first time since 2012, is locked in as 5-5A’s No. 2 seed in the Division I bracket and will play either White Settlement Brewer or Haslet Eaton in the bi-district round in two weeks.
“It means a lot,” Bearcats linebacker Jalyn Cotton said of qualifying without needing outside help. “We just have to keep fighting. Let’s go get this Ax and hopefully get a gold ball.”
While Sherman never trailed, there were some tense moments as Wichita Falls (2-8, 0-6) drew within eight points in the third quarter and crossed midfield with a chance to get even closer.
“I was worried,” Martinez said. “We didn’t (take control) right away. I told them (at halftime) I was worried that our focus is not where it needs to be. If they go down and score and we sputter offensively, the next thing you know it’s 28-20. What happens if you do it again, go three-and-out. They can make it 28-27. We can’t get in that.
“All of a sudden, I felt like a soothsayer because it was 28-20. I went, ‘oh, gosh. What did I say that for?’ I was challenging the players and they responded. The defense bore down a little bit and started getting some stops.”
Cotton came up with the game-turning play, sacking Anthony Vargas on third down. A bad snap on the punt attempt gave Sherman the ball at the Wichita Falls 33-yard line and Bentsen scored four plays later to give the Bearcats a 15-point cushion.
“We just kept fighting through adversity,” Cotton said. “We kept listening to what (defensive coordinator Mark Wilkinson) was saying and not giving up. We just kept fighting.”
Bentsen was 15-of-21 passing for 187 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 117 yards and a score on 11 carries as Sherman finished with 442 total yards. Omayebu rushed for 97 yards on 20 carries, scoring on runs of 20, 1, 2 and 2 yards. Tylor Jones caught six passes for 61 yards and Jeremy Norvell had three receptions for 92 yards and a TD.
“As an offense, we want to go in there and be balanced,” Bentsen said. “Set up the run early and do some quick passes to the outside, whether it be quick hitches or screens, whatever can get us going. That opens up some stuff later on.
“We started making some big plays in the run game and then took shots over the top.”
Much like in it’s victory over Denton Braswell, Sherman benefited from good field position, starting three drives in Wichita Falls territory. All three resulted in touchdowns.
“It’s a lot easier because it opens up our playbook,” Bentsen said. “It allows us to do, really, whatever we want whenever we don’t have our backs against the wall and we’re trying to pound it out.”
Martinez said the short fields helped make up for the fact that Sherman ran just 23 plays in five first-half possessions.
“That kind of limits you to what you can do,” he said. “You’d better be finishing drives if that’s all you’re going to get the ball.
“I’m very happy with (offensive coordinator) Derek Thompson and the offensive staff for the job they did. It was fantastic. They had a great game plan and had the kids come out and execute it.”
Sherman reached midfield on its first possession before a penalty stalled the drive and led to the Bearcats’ only punt of the night. The next four drives reached the end zone.
Omayebu gained 52 yards on an eight-play, 68-yard drive, which he capped with his first touchdown to put Sherman ahead to stay. Austin Bindel then returned a punt 62 yards to the Wichita Falls 6, leading to Omayebu’s second score.
Bentsen set up Omayebu’s third TD with a 48-yard keeper to the Coyote 2 as Sherman took a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Vargas completed 26 of 31 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns for Wichita Falls with Jordan Hatton catching 12 passes for 206 yards and a score. The Coyotes finished with just 26 rushing yards on 28 carries as Vargas was sacked six times.
Hatton repeatedly came up with big gains to keep the Coyotes in the game, picking up first-down yardage three times when WFHS faced third-and-16 or longer.
Hatton scored on an 18-yard reception to start the second quarter, but Wichita Falls was forced to settle for Alex Ramirez field goals of 28 and 20 yards on its next two series as Sherman took a 28-13 halftime lead. A failed onside kick following the first field goal gave Sherman the ball at the Coyote 49 and Bentsen hit a wide-open Norvell for a touchdown off a flea flicker on the next play.
“The ball was in the air forever,” Norvell said. “It felt like eternity right there.”
Wichita Falls cut the margin to 28-20 on the opening drive of the second half as Vargas connected with A.J. Byrd for an 11-yard score. Byrd finished with five receptions for 77 yards.
Bentsen’s 13-yard scramble for a touchdown came with 1:07 left in the third quarter and Omayebu’s fourth TD capped a 10-play, 63-yard drive that put Sherman ahead 42-20 with 9:15 to go. The Coyotes answered quickly as Vargas hit Marcharie Johnson for a 51-yard touchdown, but Sherman blocked the extra point and Steadman Wilson returned the ball 92 yards for two points.
On the ensuing possession, Mike Brown took over for Omayebu and scored his first varsity touchdown on a 3-yard run with 3:45 remaining. Brown finished with 41 yards on nine carries.