GUNTER — The Tigers have known for the past couple of years they have been very good. But at times you never know just how good. When Gunter won the Class 3A Division II championship in 2016, it was coming off a respectable 8-4 record. The expectation for that ending were not there. As 2019 ended with another 3A D-II crown for the Tigers, it was certainly a more believable goal.
"There’s a lot of reasons for success and it starts with being fortunate to have great kids," Tigers head coach Jake Fieszel said. "Success breeds success and we have kids that come up and want to be a part of something. But just because we had success in the past doesn’t mean we’re going to have it this year."
The Tigers capped off their championship season with a 43-22 victory against Paul Pewitt at AT&T Stadium, finishing 15-1 with their only loss coming in Week 2 against Pottsboro, which finished as the Class 3A Division I runner-up.
Gunter’s Class of 2020 saw plenty of victories during their high school careers — a run of 16-0, 15-1, 14-1 and 15-1 for a combined 60-3 record, which included a state runner-up finish and another semifinal appearance.
Heading into this season Gunter continues to have a target on its back, not only as the defending champ but the top-ranked team in the 3A Division I preseason poll.
"I think you’ve always got to hit the reset button in January, whether you’ve bee able to win a state championship or if you’ve had a sub-par year," Fieszel said.
The Tigers have spent the majority of this stretch reloading instead of rebuilding, and if another deep December run happens, Gunter will be following that blueprint.
Among those lost to graduation include Peyton Lowe, who was the Texas Sports Writers Association Class 3A Defensive Player of the Year with 126 tackles, five interceptions, three fumble recoveries and six defensive touchdowns, a two-time state title game Defensive Player of the Game and the district’s Defensive Player of the Year in addition to his contributions on offense (97 carries for 768 yards and 14 TDs and 19 catches for 456 yards and 10 TDs) and special teams; Clayton Reed, who was the state title game Offensive Player of the Game, shared the district’s Utility Player of the Year and was first-team all-state for his efforts on both sides of the ball — 1,038 rushing yards, 341 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns and 91 tackles, 10 pass breakups, five interceptions and three TDs; Bryson Rigsby, who was first-team all-district at running back and linebacker and first-team all-state on defense with 167 tackles, six sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and three interceptions; lineman Josh Magers, who was also first-team all-district on both sides of the ball and second-team all-state on offense and David Denton, who was first-team all-district at receiver and second-team all-district at corner.
For the first time during this run, the Tigers bring back their quarterback. Hudson Graham shared the district’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year honor and totaled 485 yards and nine touchdowns on 106 carries and completed 62-of-103 passes for 915 yards and 17 touchdowns with five interceptions.
"We’re going to put a lot on him," Fieszel said. "He’s a seasoned veteran even though he’s only a junior."
The rotating cast around him in the backfield will involve a combination of senior Mitchell Brewer, who has served as the backup QB, junior Saul Rodriguez, who totaled 31 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns in a reserve role and sophomore Ashton Bennett, who earned second-team all-district honors at tight end.
Sophomore Ethan Sloan was chosen second-team all-district as a receiver for his work in the slot, which included 35 carries for 307 yards and three scores. Sophomore Ivy Hellman is another option as well.
"We’ve got good depth, we’re just very, very young," Fieszel said. "We basically have three running backs in a lot of our sets. We definitely want to spread things out and have fresh legs."
Senior Cade Roller also returns after three catches for 79 yards and a touchdown while junior Cole Lemons is slated to be the tight end.
There are two starters back on the offensive line. Junior Trey Oblas was first-team all-district at right tackle, classmate Lake Dophied was second-team all-district at right guard and they will be joined by juniors Sean McClure at center and Greyson Toney at left guard. Left tackle is a battle involving senior Brandon Wilcocks and sophomores Mason Peacock and Nolan Backshies.
Gunter’s defense continued to shine in 2019, allowing more than 22 points just twice and holding 11 of 16 opponents to two TDs or less, including three shutouts. But only four starters are back on the unit.
"There’s a lot of competition going on right now. I think we’re going to have a lot of talent on our defense," Fieszel said. "We’ve got to continue to hammer away at it. By the time we get to our district games we’ll be able to play some really solid defense."
Bennett was a second-team all-district selection up front and will also see snaps at linebacker. The rest of the line looks to be built from a rotation of Oblas, McClure, Peacock, Dophied and senior Martin Garcia.
Brewer leads the linebacking unit after being second-team all-district. Rodriguez joins him in the middle while Sloan, who was first-team all-district, is on the outside along with Kaden Rigsby.
In the secondary, the Tigers are turning to Lemons at one corner and Graham could be the other, while junior Cooper Wade is the free safety.
Logan Hubbard returns as the kicker after being first-team all-district and Graham will handle punting duties.
Realignment sent the Tigers back in this direction after a two-year sojourn with teams based around Wichita Falls. The road trips come to an end with the much more Texoma-friendly District 8-3A (II) — Gunter will go for its fifth straight loop crown against Bells (which is a defending district champ), Whitewright, S&S, Leonard, Blue Ridge and Lone Oak, which moved down from Division I.
The Tigers haven’t dropped a district contest since 2015, a winning streak of 28 games and counting.
"We’re excited to be back over in this area. Our fans are excited about renewing some district rivalries we’ve had in the past," Fieszel said. "It’s going to be a challenge and a really good district to be a part of."