DENTON — The Henrietta Bearcats played keepaway in the first half. The Gunter Tigers played takeaway in the second.
Gunter took the first step in defense of its Class 3A Division II state championship Thursday with a 45-13 bi-district victory over Henrietta, converting three turnovers into touchdowns to break open a close game.
Zach Lowe, Dylan Jantz and Braiden Clopton each scored two touchdowns as Gunter extended its winning streak to 27 games. The Tigers (11-0) will meet the winner of Friday’s playoff between Daingerfield and Lone Oak next weekend in the area round.
Gunter never trailed and led 17-13 at halftime, but Henrietta (6-5) gave the Tigers all the could handle. The Bearcats held the ball for 18 minutes, 48 seconds of the half and converted five of nine third downs and three fourth downs to maintain possession.
“That’s the story of the first half,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “They were converting on third down. They converted on fourth-and-long a couple of times. You’ve just got to give credit to their kids. They were making plays, especially their quarterback (Zack West). He was playing fantastic.
“We’ve got to go back and watch video and clean up some of our tackling and things like that. But credit to our kids for going out after the half and just taking it to another gear and making the plays we needed to to get control of the game.”
Lowe, who opened the game with a 1-yard TD run and added a 6-yard score in the second quarter, said the Bearcats weren’t going to roll over.
“I have to give Henrietta their due,” he said. “They are one heck of a program. They fought like it.
“Our defense was doing our job, doing what we’ve been coached. I guess you can’t win them all unless you win the first one.”
West, who was 8 of 16 passing for 94 yards, hit Brody Offield for an 18-yard score to answer Lowe’s first TD, but Gunter took the lead for good on Evan Gonzalez’s 28-yard field goal and Lowe’s second TD came with 4:49 left in the half. The Bearcats closed the gap when Mason Marchman scored on an 18-yard run with 27 seconds left in the half.
Fieszel said the key for Gunter was to not get frustrated.
“They were playing really well and we had the lead,” he said. “We had to just go in and continue doing what we were doing. We were playing really well on offense and pretty good on special teams. Defensively, we weren’t playing bad, we just had bad tackling at times. Especially on third down.
“We just told the kids to hang in there and go fight for it in the second half, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Peyton Lowe’s interception on the first play of the second half led to Jantz’s 2-yard TD, then Jantz returned a fumble 36 yards to score two plays after the kickoff. An interception by Clopton led to his 23-yard TD run with 3:03 to go in the third quarter.
Ethan Everson then hit Clopton for 38-yard TD early in the fourth quarter to put it away.
Gunter finished with 297 total yards to Henrietta’s 264. Zack Lowe rushed for 67 yards on nine carries and Clopton had 63 yards on five rushes. Everson was 3 of 4 passing for 65 yards.
West added 88 yards rushing on 25 carries and Marchman finished with 70 on 16 carries.