MELISSA — When the Cardinals got put into a district with Gilmer four years ago, they knew what they were dealing with.
When realignment sent Melissa back to a more western home, it only prolonged an appearance on the schedule by the Buckeyes.
Again Melissa finds itself dealing with one of the region’s powerhouse program but the Cardinals feel better about their chances than recent meetings as the latest installment sees Melissa (11-1) takes on Gilmer (10-2) in a Class 4A Division II Region II semifinal at Mesquite’s Memorial Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.
The winner will face either Celina or Texarkana Pleasant Grove in the region final next week.
“They’re good but we’re not bad either. You’ve got to beat the best to be the best. I feel it was like that when we won the 2011 title,” Melissa head coach Seth Stinton said. “Let’s go be us. Do what we do.”
Gilmer has won the match-up each of the past three seaons, including a 55-6 victory in the area round a year ago when the Buckeyes were state semifinalists. Melissa has been outscored by Gilmer, 178-6, in that span.
“I think it’s going to be different this year,” senior Tate Whittington said. “We take it one week at a time and focus on being better at certain things.”
These are not the same Cardinals even from last year’s squad due to the experience a young core gained in turning a 1-9 record from 2015 into an 8-4 season.
“They punched us in the mouth,” Stinton said. “Being young was part of it and at the same time we caught some bad breaks. It was 27-0 after the first quarter and all their drives started on our end of the field. We can’t give them stuff like that.”
The 2017 version lost the season-opener, 21-14, against Argyle Liberty Christian and then became one of the top offenses in school history. Melissa has produced 556 points (46.3 points per game), which is second only to the 2011 state championship squad that scored 604 points in 14 contests, and crossed the 50-point barrier six times.
A pair of sophomores have paced the Cardinals. Ja’Bray Young has 132 carries for 1,079 yards and 15 touchdowns. Brendon Lewis is 148-of-252 passing for 2,508 yards with 35 touchdowns and just seven interceptions and run for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns on 118 carries after taking over quarterback duties from Whittington late last season.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons,” Whittington said. “He was as good or better. So I went to the coaches and said that it would be best for the team. Brendon’s done a really good job.”
At receiver, Kennedy Lewis has 44 catches for 911 yards and 10 TDs, Whittington has 32 catches for 521 yards and 11 scores and Junior Castleberry is at 20 catches for 454 yards and four touchdowns.
Whittington’s move also allowed him to play defense for the Cardinals this year.
“Tate did a great job doing what he did but when we moved Tate to allow him to play both sides of the ball, that made us a lot better,” Stinton said. “I think that gets overlooked how important that’s been.”
It is an all-around contribution. Marvin Jordan has only six receptions but five have found the end zone. Breelyn Armstrong has just 96 carries but seven of them are touchdowns.
Melissa won its 11th straight game — setting a school record — by scoring three times in the fourth quarter to turn back Rusk, 56-34, last week and reach the region semifinals for the third time and first since 2011.
Young had 16 carries for 137 yards and three touchdowns while Brendon Lewis had 18 carries for 120 yards and two TDs and was 7-of-18 passing for 102 yards with touchdowns to Castleberry, Cole McCraw and and Chance Mapps.
The Cardinals trailed, 34-28, in the middle of the third quarter before holding Rusk scoreless the rest of the way and finishing with six forced turnovers, four of them fumble recoveries, to win going away.
Gilmer has won the region title each of the past three seasons, kicking off the stretch by winning the state title in 2014. Only once since 2003 has the team not earned at least 10 victories — also winning championships in 2004 and 2009 — and the one year the Buckeyes didn’t (2010) they still reached the region semifinals to finish 9-4.
Last week Gilmer beat a districtmate of Melissa’s, Caddo Mills, 63-14, to advance to the third round. Aaron Brown was 13-of-16 passing for 313 yards with four touchdowns and added a rushing touchdown and Brannon Webb finished with three catches for 118 yards and two scores as Gilmer led 63-0 after three quarters.
The Buckeyes opened the playoffs with a 55-40 victory against Diboll.
The only losses of the season came against Carthage, 48-28, in non-district play and then in the District 7-4A (II) opener, 41-38, against Pleasant Grove. The Buckeyes have had their fair share of closes games but they are shootouts — a 58-57 opening win against Liberty-Eylau and in district against Gladewater (49-39) and Longview Spring Hill (44-42).
Brown leads an offense that is averaging 48.7 points per game by completing 216-of-339 passes for 3,277 yards and 25 touchdowns with 11 interceptions and also run for 812 yards and 17 touchdowns on 120 carries.
Webb leads the Buckeyes in rushing with 139 carries for 1,307 yards and 24 TDs. The leading receivers are Morgan Lusty, who has 48 catches for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns, and Qua Heath, who has totaled 712 yards and six touchdowns on 43 grabs. Red Jones also has 49 catches for 623 yards and three scores.
“They are dang good. Their quarterback is what makes them go,” Stinton said. “We’ve got to play well.”