MELISSA — The pieces were there and the Cardinals knew they fit in such a way that scoring points wasn’t going to be much of a problem.
Outside of a season-opening loss, Melissa has been lighting up the scoreboard on a weekly basis. Deep in the playoffs however, came the first significant bump in the road since that Sept. 1 defeat — only this time it would have meant the year was over.
The Cardinals had been held scoreless in the first half against Gilmer and sat in the locker room working on the problems that plagued them for the first two quarters.
“The message at half-time was we have to execute. The attitude was ‘we can play with these guys,’” Melissa head coach Seth Stinton said. “Our seniors — no panic. That’s the biggest thing, they are doing a great job of leading. The second half was about momentum swings.”
Melissa found its footing the rest of the way, pulling off a comeback to move another step closer to a state title. Now as one of eight teams left in the bracket, the Cardinals (12-1) face Texarkana Pleasant Grove (13-0) in the Class 4A Division II Region II final at Paris’ Wildcat Stadium at 7 p.m. on Friday.
“Once we got our confidence up, the chain reaction started to happen,” senior captain and running back Breelyn Armstrong said. “We aren’t looking back too much at Gilmer. We’re looking forward to what it’s going to take to beat Pleasant Grove.”
The winner will play either Bushland or Graham in the state semifinals next week at 7 p.m. on Thursday at The Ford Center in Frisco.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves but we are in good position,” Stinton said about the dwindling number of wins left for the program to finish with more hardware.
If the Cardinals pick up their 13th victory, they will tie the school record set by the 2011 state championship squad. This version’s offense also has a chance to surpass that one for the program mark for points in a season — Melissa needs 14 more to break the record of 604, which was also set across 14 games in 2011.
“It’s all about improvement,” Armstrong said. “Once you see your friends doing good, you want to go out there and do good and it’s that chain reaction. Keep on motivating the young ones to be better. It’s contagious.”
Melissa advanced to the state quarterfinals for the second time with that 35-23 victory against Gilmer. It was a turnaround from their area round match-up in 2016 when Gilmer earned a 55-6 win. The Cardinals trailed this time, 14-0, before a second-half surge sent them to a school record 12th straight victory.
Ja’Bray Young had 17 carries for 176 yards and four touchdowns and Brendon Lewis threw for 237 yards and a touchdown to Kennedy Lewis, who finished with four catches for 158 yards.
“I’m excited for our kids,” Stinton said. “I told them after beating Gilmer we can’t be satisfied with that. We still have goals out there.”
Pleasant Grove, which has made it this far for the first time since 2001 and never been to the state semifinals since the program started in 1984, kept the Cardinals from an all-District 5-4A match-up after beating Celina, 33-14, to avenge a semifinal loss from last year. Chauncey Martin had 12 carries for 129 yards and three touchdowns and Carson Cox caught a TD pass from Ben Harmon.
Melissa will be the third straight 5-4A team the Hawks have faced to go with a 56-28 victory against Aubrey in the second round. Pleasant Grove opened the playoffs with a 21-7 win over Tatum.
A year ago when the Hawks made it to the region semis, their loss against Celina actually gave them a losing record at 6-7. This year’s squad has had very few brushes with defeat.
Pleasant Grove’s closest game was a 41-38 victory over Gilmer to start District 7-4A play. The only other game that has been decided by single digits was a season-opening 27-20 victory against Texarkana (Ark.).
“They’ve been with Gilmer a lot in district and the last couple years it was about getting over that hump,” Stinton said. “You look at what they’ve been able to do — we’re going to have to go out and play very well.”
The Hawks center their offense on a trio of backs with the Wing-T formation. T.J. Cole has 185 carries for 1,380 yards and 18 touchdowns, Martin has 84 carries for 896 yards and 13 scores and Bruce Garrett has 85 carries for 779 yards and seven TDs.
“Those three backs are dang good,” Stinton said. “We have to be gap sound. They do a good job of taking advantage when you’re misaligned. Just lining up right is half the battle.”
But that doesn’t mean Pleasant Grove can’t get it done through the air.
Ben Harmon is 68-of-108 for 1,593 yards and 24 touchdowns with six interceptions and also run for three scores. His favorite target is Cox, who has 24 catches for 668 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The defense is led by outside linebacker Xavier Benson, who is committed to Texas Tech.