LEONARD — When the Tigers pulled out the victory of their bi-district match-up against Nocona, it was just another down-to-the-wire finish — Leonard’s fourth of the season to be exact.
Tanner Young caught a 29-yard pass from Ronnie Hart with a one minute left, Leonard made a final stop and the five-point victory was sealed.
It was a pressure-packed situation, since it could have ended the Tigers’ season, but since the position isn’t new for Leonard, those moments haven’t been too much.
“Nobody was scared or anything. We were calm and collected,” senior Byron Bolin said. “We were focused. The coaches have been saying we work the whole off-season for moments like this.”
Finding a way to win this week is the goal as Leonard (7-4) faces New Diana (8-3) in a Class 3A Division II Region II area round game at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Greenville.
The winner will face either Harmony or Jacksboro in the region semifinals next week.
“These kids are battle-tested. These seniors have been in a lot of playoff games,” Leonard head coach Shane Fletcher said. “We’ve had some close games and I think they are prepared to handle anything.”
Leonard advanced with that 40-35 victory against Nocona, rallying after the Indians scored three times in the third quarter for a 35-28 lead after the Tigers led 28-14 at half-time. Hart had a seven-yard touchdown pass to Bolin early in the fourth but the conversion failed so Leonard was still trailing when it produced the game-winning drive.
“It was a tumultuous third quarter. It was awful,” Fletcher said. “You could see the air go out of the balloon. Our character really showed. I was very proud of them.”
Hart ran for 148 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, threw for 109 yards and three scores and returned a fumble 68 yards for a touchdown.
A month ago Leonard hung on against Cooper in district play, 31-30, by stopping a fourth-and-goal at the one and kicking a field goal on the ensuing possession to win by a point when it recovered an onside kick with just under a minute left after Cooper scored. Also in district there was a one-possession game against S&S that was sealed with a late interception return for a score.
In back-to-back weeks during non-district action, the Tigers earned a 50-48 victory in overtime against Commerce before a 19-18 loss against Celeste.
The game against Commerce had Leonard rally from a 16-point half-time deficit to force the extra period. The Tigers scored first, with a conversion, and then stopped Commerce’s conversion for the win.
Celeste is the lone blemish for Leonard in close games, getting a TD pass with seven seconds left.
Hart leads the team with 152 carries for 1,358 yards and 18 touchdowns with J.J. Brian at 148 carries for 1,131 yards and 13 scores. Hart is 94-of-186 passing for 1,501 yards and 16 TDs against eight interceptions with Michael Shulze having 34 catches for 533 yards and two touchdowns and Bolin at 31 catches for 523 yards and eight TDs.
“If one of us is having a bad game, someone’s there to pick up the slack,” Bolin said. “We share the ball.”
New Diana has won more games than in the previous three years combined and has its most victories in a season since 2005.
The Eagles, who shared the District 7-3A (II) title with Daingerfield, also had a close call in their bi-district match-up, which they won, 47-42, against Winona. Allan Brown’s interception in the final minute allowed New Diana to hang on.
Jackson Sampson completed 26-of-38 passes for 381 yards and six touchdowns. Cody Payton finished with six catches for 158 yards and two TDs, T.J. Rogers added eight catches for 147 yards and two scores and Cole Willeford caught the other two touchdowns.
The three losses came in the first five weeks of the season against White Oak (54-51), New London West Rusk (40-23) and DeKalb (62-61).
Sampson has thrown for 4,019 yards and 53 touchdowns with 11 interceptions on the season in an offense that does much of its damage through the air.
The Eagles have rushed for a little more than 1,500 yards but the leading ballcarrier is Aaron Jahr, who has 393 yards and four TDs on 31 carries. Marquice Wilkerson is right behind with 58 carries for 382 yards and three scores.
Rogers and Payton are the main receiving threats. Rogers has 84 catches for 1,469 yards and 19 touchdowns while Payton has 43 receptions for 1,263 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“They can both play,” Fletcher said. “They’re Air Raid. Very well-coached and have a strong offense. They’re similar to Nocona that they will throw a lot but different in that Nocona’s quarterback is a little more mobile.”