GUNTER — When the season started back in August, the Tigers knew the blueprint for a repeat performance would need some tweaking.
A state championship was won seemingly on the legs of Colson Stovall and Trey Carr, who combined for almost 400 carries and 3,000 yards and 46 touchdowns. Opponents knew they had to stop the potent duo and they couldn't as Gunter capped an undefeated season.
Now when foes focus on the Tigers backfield, heads swivel in different directions.
Do you try to stop senior quarterback Daylan Bower, who has the most carries?
Which junior deserves more attention, Dylan Jantz or Braiden Clopton, who have the top touchdown totals?
How do you handle the Lowe brothers, senior Zach and sophomore Peyton, who are averaging a combined 8.4 yards per carry and find the end zone every seven touches?
The path to the crown diverges in many directions — just how Gunter has drawn it up each week.
“We definitely have a lot of talented kids. We felt like we needed to get them involved,” Tigers head coach Jake Fieszel said. “Need one more big game out of all of them.”
The final week of the season has arrived and Gunter (15-0) defends its state title against Newton (14-0) tonight at 7 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“We're both good teams. It's JerryWorld,” Jantz said. “We have to execute still even though the stage is huge. We can't get caught up in the hype.”
The Tigers are also looking for their 32nd straight victory, which would tie for the 20th longest in Texas high school history, and would make them only the third area UIL team to win back-to-back titles, joining Celina from 1998-2001 and Pilot Point in 1980-81.
Newton is seeking its fourth championship to go with titles in 1974, 1998 and 2005 and was the runner-up in 2014 and 2004.
“We're excited to be in this game again and compete at the highest level,” Fieszel said.
Bower took over for Carr behind center on a full-time basis and went from 21 carries for 129 yards and two TDs to 786 yards and 16 touchdowns on 102 rushes.
“Daylan stepped in and has done a fantastic job. It's been that way from the first game,” Fieszel said. “Trey last year was obviously a fantastic player for us and Daylan has been able to continue the success that we've had.”
Jantz and Clopton had limited touches a year ago — their sophomore seasons combined were 123 carries for 812 yards and eight touchdowns — in the offense's pecking order.
Now Jantz has a team-leading 1,133 yards and 24 touchdowns on only 95 carries. Clopton isn't that far behind with 76 carries for 940 yards and 18 scores.
“We were talking about it at the end of last year. We needed to be on a whole new level this year if we wanted to keep winning,” Jantz said. “With what we've been doing I feel we've been on another level.”
In 2016 Zach Lowe was simply a goal line battering ram with seven touchdowns on 32 carries and Peyton Lowe had just a single carry, a 26-yard touchdown in district play.
Now Zach has 81 carries for 606 yards and eight touchdowns with Peyton at 50 carries for 497 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Whenever you're on the field you have to give 110 percent. We pride ourselves on effort,” Peyton Lowe said. “It all starts up front. We have a great offensive line and playmakers in the backfield.”
The diversity has been a problem to deal with. Gunter broke the school record for points for the second straight season and enters the title game having scored 756 — a 50.4 average. Nine times they have scored at lead 50 with four others coming within seven points.
“Our kids execute at such a high level. That's a credit to them,” Fieszel said. “You get into a game and you see a particular defense or one play that keeps working.”
Perhaps more amazing is the production comes with the knowledge of how they will do it. The Tigers do not deviate from their plan and have gained 85 percent of their yardage on the ground. In five playoff games Gunter has thrown just nine times and in two games they haven't thrown at all, including last week against Canadian.
The Tigers won the state semifinal rematch, 56-27, by racing out to a 35-7 lead by the middle of the second quarter. Bower scored four touchdowns and Clopton scored three — including a 55-yard interception return. The closest margin of victory for Gunter remains a 26-0 victory over Pottsboro in Week 2.
“We're amazed to be in this situation and ready to play to the best of our ability,” Peyton Lowe said. “Winning one is hard. Going back-to-back is even crazier. We're going to try and find a way to get it done.”
Newton has had similar success in amassing its undefeated record. Only once have the Eagles won by fewer than two touchdowns, a 21-7 victory against New London West Rusk in the region semifinals.
Last week Newton advanced with a 56-28 victory against Boling, the team Gunter handled, 43-7, in the title game. Darwin Barlow ran for 149 yards and four touchdowns on 11 carries as the Eagles pulled away in the final 14 minutes. Boling was down 33-28 at that point but never scored again.
Outside of the West Rusk game, Newton has scored at least 40 points in every game. Boling was the first team to score more than 20 points against the Eagles, who had five straight shutouts during district play and into the first round of the playoffs.
Barlow, a junior, has 187 carries for 2,109 yards and 37 touchdowns this season.
Classmate Josh Foster has completed 106-of-165 passes for 1,760 yards and 27 touchdowns with six interceptions and run for 510 yards and 14 touchdowns on 72 carries.
The main two receiving threats are Tamauzia Brown, who has 54 catches for 867 yards and 13 touchdowns and Noah Williams, who has 23 catches for 452 yards and 10 scores.
Senior linebacker Corbin Foster leads the Eagles' stingy defense with 217 tackles. Newton has forced 42 turnovers, including 25 fumble recoveries.
“They're an extremely talented football team,” Fieszel said. “We're in for a huge challenge.”