GUNTER — The expectations are outweighing the pressure, even if they arrive from the same place.
At this time last season, Gunter was coming off a four-loss season and finding their way with a new offense. Now the Tigers carry the lofty mantel of defending state champions and through the first month have looked up the task.
“I think you embrace it. There’s not much insulation in today’s world,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “We try to coach them hard and push the kids to meet high standards.”
Braiden Clopton scored twice, Daylan Bower led the team with nine carries for 82 yards and a touchdown and Dylan Jantz returned an interception for a score as the Tigers defeated Pilot Point, 43-11, in non-district action at Tiger Stadium on Friday night.
The victory was the 20th straight for the Tigers (4-0), matching the school record from 1956-58 as a six and then eight-man program.
“We know we have a huge target on our back,” Bower said. “It’s an expectation to go out and play hard and dominate. It’s our program. It’s how we do things here.”
Pilot Point (1-3) finished with just 38 yards of offense and three first downs, all of them in the final five minutes of the second quarter. The Bearcats ran 27 times and lost six yards with their only touchdown a three-yard run by Jacob Pitts in the final minutes after a turnover at the Gunter seven-yard line.
“A lot of it is team chemistry,” senior linebacker Zach Lowe said. “We have a lot of players who have that experience from last year. We do our part and we win. We take it week by week. We’re not looking at the big picture just yet.”
On the way to its undefeated season a year ago, Pilot Point played the Tigers the toughest in a 27-21 defeat. This game was not in that neighborhood.
Holding a hefty lead, Gunter scored twice in the first four minutes of the third quarter.
The Tigers needed just four plays for a touchdown to start the second half as Bower kept on a 14-yard option to the right side and went untouched to the end zone.
Gunter scored in one snap the next time it had the ball. Clopton took a toss to the right, followed Lowe’s kickout block with a cutback, made a defender miss and outraced the defense down the sideline for a 61-yard touchdown and a 43-3 lead with 8:36 left in the third.
A missed field goal and a turnover the rest of the quarter kept the Tigers off the board before turning it over to the backups. Gunter’s four turnovers — three fumbles — were the blemish on the night.
“There’s always something we can go improve on,” Fieszel said.
Gunter built a 29-0 advantage late in the half thanks to short fields and a smothering defense. So far this season the team has not allowed more than two touchdowns in any game.
“We’re really proud of how they’re playing,” Fieszel said. “We pride ourselves on playing defense as well as we can.”
Peyton Lowe had a nine-yard TD run to cap the Tigers’ last scoring before the break on a drive which started at the Pilot Point 44.
Less than a minute into the second quarter, Jantz stepped in front a receiver deep over the middle and raced down the left sideline for a 42-yard interception return for a score. He injured his left shoulder breaking up a pass early in the third and did not return.
That was three plays after Gunter held a 22-0 lead. Ethan Everson connected with Clopton after the junior got behind a defender down the right sideline for a 60-yard touchdown with 34 seconds left in the first quarter.
After its opening drive stalled at the Pilot Point 35, Gunter notched its first touchdown with a seven-play, 54-yard drive as Zach Lowe scored from nine yards out with 3:18 left in the first quarter. Bower ran in the conversion.
The Tigers’ final two possessions of the half ended with turnovers, including Bryson Griffin recovering a fumble just past midfield when Gunter had a chance to go up by five touchdowns.
Pilot Point struggled to get anything going in the first half until Quincy Kemp intercepted Bower with less than a minute to go at the Gunter 46.
The Bearcats went to the air for two first downs and then ended up settling for a Jaime Tavera 36-yard field goal as the second quarter expired.
That drive picked up 32 yards, nearly all of Pilot Point’s first half total of 43, which included just a single yard on 17 carries. The Bearcats did not gain a first down until 4:46 left in the second quarter.
“We have a lot of kids playing at a high level right now, a lot of them played in a lot of big ballgames last year,” Fieszel said. “Kids who have stepped into their roles and want to do well.”