VERNON — Exactly one year ago the Gunter Tigers had reached the pinnacle and were celebrating a state crown. They made school history, during an undefeated season, and brought back more than a handful of key pieces.
On the same day they once called themselves champions, the Tigers then punched their ticket back to the title game with another overwhelming performance.
“It’s amazing to be back,” junior two-way standout Braiden Clopton said. “Sixteen games seems so long but we’re having fun and then you look up and it seems so short.”
Quarterback Daylan Bower ran for four touchdowns and Clopton scored three times as Gunter defeated Canadian, 56-27, in a Class 3A Division II state semifinal on Friday night.
The Tigers (15-0) will face Newton (15-0), which beat Boling — last year’s runner-up — 56-28, for the state championship at 7 p.m. on Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“Getting back to the state championship game, that’s a tough task,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “We knew this group of kids had that kind of ability.”
The Tigers will carry a 31-game winning streak into the finale and the victory against Canadian (14-1) matched the 25th-longest stretch in Texas high school football history. It was the second straight season the Wildcats lost against Gunter in the state semifinals and the re-match wasn’t even close to the 44-34 margin from 2016.
“We knew about what they could do. They had a good game plan,” Bower said. “We watched the film from last year to figure out would stuff would be open.”
Gunter did not throw a pass with all 63 snaps coming on the ground and producing 284 yards. Clopton totaled 87 yards on 12 carries, Bower led with 22 carries for 77 yards, and Dylan Jantz, who capped the scoring with 3:58 remaining on a three-yard TD, finished with 16 carries for 74 yards.
“Our offensive line was really coming off the ball well. So proud of those kids,” Fieszel said. “All of our kids were running really well.”
The Tigers built a 35-14 half-time lead and Bower’s last TD run in the middle of the third padded the margin, the end of a nearly seven-minute drive to open the second half. Casen Cavalier, who threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns while running for two scores, connected with Garrison McCook for a 35-yard TD on the ensuing possession and the Wildcats became the first team this season to score more than 14 points against Gunter.
Canadian was never able to slow the Tigers, however, and the teams traded touchdowns in the fourth. Clopton scored from seven yards out and then Cavalier found Trent Evans for a four-yard TD with 7:13 remaining. Jantz closed things out against a defense that hadn’t allowed more than 20 points in a game all season and 132 through 13 games.
It was the first time in six years the Wildcats gave up at least 50 points.
The Tigers fell behind almost immediately and in the rare position to be down on the scoreboard at any point this season.
Canadian, which gained just 47 yards on 27 carries, went three-and-out to open the game and the first play for Gunter was a sack and fumble at the Tigers 10-yard line. Two plays later Cavalier scored on a two-yard keeper and the Wildcats had the lead barely two minutes into the contest.
“We wanted to take a shot right out of the gate and the worst possible thing happened,” Fieszel said. “We definitely put ourselves in a hole. We really responded.”
Gunter scored on its next two possessions to take the lead for good. The first was an 11-play drive that had Bower scoring from two yards out in the middle of the first.
Jantz had a 42-yard punt return to the Canadian 10 and the Tigers were up 14-7 with 2:13 left in the first when Bower had a one-yard TD on fourth-and-goal.
The teams traded punts before Gunter came up with a fourth-down stop in Canadian territory to set up its next touchdown. Canadian needed a yard at its 34 but Caleb Martinez was stuff for no gain and the Tigers took over. Bower again did the honors with another one-yard touchdown with 7:06 left in the first half.
Canadian finally put together a drive that included its initial first downs on the game and had just gotten past midfield. Cavalier made a quick throw to the far receiver at the line of scrimmage and as it left his hand Clopton was ready.
He caught the interception in stride and went 55 yards the other way for a touchdown that put Gunter ahead, 28-7, with 5:13 left in the half.
“All week we practiced if they lined up tight it’d be a screen. The people were behind me so I trusted my speed,” Clopton said. “They were figuring out some things and then the momentum shifted to our sideline.”
The Tigers used another turnover to increase the lead. Cavalier was under a heavy rush, sacked and Gage Biggerstaff recovered at the Wildcats 10-yard line. Two plays later Clopton took a toss through the left side on a five-yard run and it was a 35-7 advantage a minute later.
“We got some stops when we really had to,” Fieszel said. “Kept them off-balance. Getting them out of rhythm was really big.”
Canadian managed to get on the board with 2:21 remaining in the quarter when Matthew Lynch kept the drive alive with a 16-yard reception at the Gunter 2 on fourth-and-five. Cavalier scored on the next snap for a 35-14 margin at the break.
The constant short fields kept the first-half yardage totals low — Gunter had 134 yards on 32 carries while Canadian had 145 yards with 96 of it coming through the air.
“After we went up 14-7 we settled in,” Bower said. “Clop’s interception took us to another level.”