CELINA — The Celina Bobcats have been in similar situations many times throughout their storied history, facing a physically superior opponent with the season on the line.
Eight state championships and three more appearances in state finals — the latest just two years ago — attest to the Bobcats’ ability to rise to the occasion in such match-ups.
Celina (8-3) looks to extend its season in a Class 4A Division II area playoff against the Jasper Bulldogs at 2 p.m. on Friday at Bruce Field in Athens.
“We’re fortunate at Celina because of great tradition,” Celina head coach Bill Elliott said. “Being in the playoffs 24 years in a row, our kids kind of come to expect that. Our community expects that. We just basically tell them we’re going to take it one week at a time. There’s six weeks you’ve got to play.
“Last week was the first of those six, this is the second one and this is the next most important opponent. We’ve got to get through this one to get to the third one. That’s all we’re going to concentrate on and worry about. We’ve just got to go out and take care of business and play our best game, do what we need to do to take care of Jasper.”
The winner of Friday’s game advances to the regional round to take either Texarkana Pleasant Grove and Aubrey.
Elliott said the Bulldogs (8-2) pose a definite challenge for the Bobcats.
“They got a lot of talent, a lot of great skill kids, a lot of speed,” he said. “They’ve got some great size up front. They average about 275 up front in the line.
“They run a different offense than most folks see nowadays, kind of an old-school Wing-T type offense, a lot of unbalanced formations, a lot of different formations. One of our big keys is getting our defense lined up in the right position to be able to make plays. Offensively, it’s just execution, taking care of the football, getting down the field, keeping their offense off the field and being able to control the ball.”
Jasper has relied heavily on its rushing attack, averaging 311.1 of its 391 total yards on the ground. Jerkerion Simmons (157-1,369, 16 TDs) leads the team with Montavien Hunt (78-622, 7 TDs) and Jarvis Wilson (86-486, 6 TDs) augmenting the production.
Elliott said playing disciplined football is a must for the Bobcats, who have allowed 241.6 total yards (98.8 rushing, 142.8 passing) and 20.5 points per game.
“If you were to match us up man for man against Jasper, Jasper’s a much more talented ball team than we are, just the kind of skill kids they’ve got, the speed they’ve got,” Elliott said. “To beat a talented team, you’ve got to play disciplined football to your your assignments, and you’ve also got to play with great effort.
“That’s the two things that we’re concentrating on with our kids. We know we’re going to need effort out of our kids, so it’s our job to get them aligned right and get them in the right place to do their jobs so they play with that discipline.”
Celina linebacker Casen Heistand, who shares the team lead with safety Skyler Bohall in tackles with 74, said that’s nothing new for the Bobcats.
“We just get more disciplined as the year goes on,” said Heistand, who has 21 tackles for loss and five hurries. “We run more offense, we study more, we get more into it and everything.”
In addition to Heistand and Bohall, who has six interceptions — two returned for touchdowns — and seven pass breakups, defensive end Kaghen Roach has 65 tackles with 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Outside linebackers Logan Engle (50.5 tackles, 19 TFL, 13 Hurries, 2 INT) and Nick Lowry (43.5 tackles, 4 Sacks, 4 PBU) have also been productive.
Heistand said on factor favoring the Bobcats is the number of pressure games the team has already experienced. Celina has had four games decided by eight points or less, including District 5-4A Division II victories over Caddo Mills (24-28) and Aubrey (24-22).
“We like to say we’ve had the games other people haven’t,” Heistand said. “We’ve had those games where we’ve had to come back, and we’ve had those games that have been tough. We don’t think all the other teams have had those, yet.”
Offensively, Celina averages 362.6 total yards (273.2 rushing, 89.5 passing) and 35.5 points per game. Running backs Logan Poing (105-719, 11 TDs rushing) and Esmael Ortiz (119-713, 6 TDs) lead a deep rotation of skill players. Quarterback Noah Ross (125-673, 12 TDs rushing; 50-112-8—810, 8 TDs passing) gives the Bobcats a dual threat.
Offensive lineman Grant Smith said Celina is hitting its stride at the right time, coming off a 63-13 bi-district victory over Ferris.
“We’ve had some struggles during the start of the season,” Smith said. “We’ve had some injuries, quite a few injuries, actually. Our offensive line, there are a couple of people that have been out. We’re just trying to get those younger kids up and get them in the groove of things.
“This past week, we had a great win. Our whole mindset in going in, just competing and being physical.”
In the victory over Ferris, Celina passed for 232 yards just a week after passing for five yards against Aubrey.
“We’re just going to do what we can do,” Elliott said. “Whatever’s working is what we’re going to take. We’re not going to sit there and try to do something that’s not working. If we can run the football, we’ll run it. If we can throw it, we’ll throw it. We’ll do whatever the defense is allowing us to do and whatever we’re having success with that night.
“We did attack downfield last week against Ferris. They did some things that allowed us to get some some shots down the field, so we took advantage of it. It’s something we wanted to work on that first round. We were also able to run the ball very successfully.”