TIOGA — The Tioga Bulldogs are in uncharted territory, but they’ve come too far to give up now.
Tioga (11-1) will play Jonesboro (12-1) at 5 p.m. on Saturday in a Class 1A Division I state semifinal at Springtown’s Porcupine Stadium. It will be the Bulldogs’ first appearance in the fourth round of the playoffs in just their fourth season of varsity competition since the program was restarted after a 65-year absence.
“It’s been a really special season,” said running back Cade Kimbrell, who leads Tioga with 1,683 yards and 32 touchdowns rushing. “It’s been so surreal, especially being this far for the first time ever in school history. We just keep getting through the next week somehow. Hopefully, we can do the same this week and make more history.”
The winner of Saturday’s game will meet the winner between Happy and Gail Borden County in the Class 1A Division I state championship game at 11 a.m. Dec. 20 at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium. Jonesboro reached the state finals for the first time last year, losing 60-12 to Borden County. With Tioga already exceeding the six-man enrollment limit heading into February’s University Interscholastic League realignment, the Bulldogs know their run in the six-man ranks must end, but they’d like to extend it for one more game.
“We all take into consideration that this could be our last game,” said center Logan Scott, who has seven receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown in addition to recording 49 tackles and two fumble recoveries on defense. “Any of these playoff games could have been our last game. We know it’s our last year in six-man, so we kind of want to make a statement for ourselves going into 11-man.
“We’ve got to take it to where our last play, last everything, just keep on playing the game. If you keep playing like that, look what happens. That’s what happened this last game.”
This last game was a 44-40 quarterfinal victory over Gilmer Union Hill that was decided by Javier Rivera’s 32-yard field goal with 2.6 seconds remaining. Tioga led 32-8 at halftime before Union Hill came back to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
“We’d never kicked a field goal before,” said Rivera, who has 41 tackles in defense and three receptions for 53 yards on offense in addition to handling kicking duties. “I was like, ‘I’m ready for this.’ I was waiting the whole season to try a kick and it came in the best moment. I had everyone looking at me. Thank God I made that field goal because it got us the win and we’re going to the next round.”
In beating Union Hill, Tioga avenged a season-ending mercy-rule loss from 2016.
“It was so important for our program and our school and most important for our kids,” Tioga head coach Cody Patton said. “We had a lot of those kids that were back from last year’s team. After we went last year and got beat, we played the same exact team in the exact same venue.
“They got that taste in their mouth and saw what it was like to be on the losing side of that. To step up and make plays and perform like they did Friday with the senior leadership and everything was one of the best possible situations you could ever wish for for those kids. They’re well deserving of it.”
Rivera said having survived tense situations before makes it more likely for the Bulldogs to do so again.
“Our coaches are doing a good job with us,” he said. “We’re getting together really good as a team and we’re ready to play in all situations. Whenever we have to do stuff like that, we’re going to do it.”
Patton believes the last two games have benefited the Bulldogs, and not just by extending their season.
“I think it showed our kids things are not always going to go perfect,” he said. “But with this group, it almost seems like when something bad happens or we have a mishap or something like that, these guys buckle down and play even harder.
“I think this week’s game is going to be just like the one before it. It’s going to be fighting tooth and nail, getting after it and just giving it everything we’ve got and see what happens.”
In Jonesboro, Tioga faces a power-running team that has accumulated 4,636 of its 5,563 yards on the ground. Backs Wyatt Young (164-2,333, 38 TDs) and Ethan Lilljedahl (89-1,046, 22 TDs) give the Eagles a potent combination.
“Jonesboro has got some really big horses that are going to have us outweighed on the line,” Patton said. “They’re going to come up in a tight formation and just try to ground and pound and run over you.
“They’ve got two really good backs that are very hard to stop. We’re going to have to be really good tacklers as far as wrapping up and getting all six guys to the football. That’s going to be extremely important.”
Tioga has allowed just 149.5 yards and 16.8 per game. Marshall Lease leads the team with 101 tackles with Josiah DeLeon (84), Kaleb Scott (77) and Seth DeLeon (67) also being active on defense.
Patton said the Eagles’ size will pose problems for the Bulldog offense, as well. Tioga comes in averaging 244.3 yards and 50.4 points per game. Kaleb Scott adds 869 yards and 17 touchdowns rushing and joins Lease and Kimbrell to combine for 1,020 yards and 20 TDs passing. Josiah DeLeon (31-526, 9 TDs) and Seth DeLeon (12-208, 5 TDs) are the leading receivers.
“You have to either try to get (Jonesboro’s defenders) in space to outmatch some of their speed or line up and get some angles on them where we can get some movement to be able to move the football,” Patton said.