GUNTER — There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that when the Gunter Tigers and Holliday Eagles met during 5-3A (II) play, the district championship was going to be on the line. Now that the two teams meet seven weeks later, there is a something much bigger at stake — the region championship.
The only blemish for either team came in that district match-up and while Gunter is looking for history to repeat itself as the Tigers try to add to their historic run over the past three seasons, Holliday would love nothing more than to exact some revenge as part of what could be one of the best years its program has seen.
“Number one, our kids know exactly how good they are,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “There’s not a single person in our program taking Holliday lightly. We’ve got to prepare for their best and they’re going to prepare for our best.”
The battle to move one step away from playing for a championship comes with Gunter (13-0) facing Holliday (12-1) in the Class 3A Division II Region II final at 7 p.m. on Friday at Munson Stadium in Denison.
The winner will face either Abernathy (12-1) or Canadian (12-1) in the state semifinals next week. If Gunter and Canadian advance, it will be the third straight season they will square off for a berth in the championship game.
“When you get a piece of that success, you understand what it takes to get to that point,” Fieszel said. “The sophomores on the state championship team have played a whole extra season. Those things add up.”
When the teams met at Gunter in the middle of October, the Tigers picked up the 30-13 victory by holding the Eagles to 165 total yards. Dylan Jantz ran 22 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns and caught five passes for 74 yards while Ethan Everson and Clayton Reed added touchdown runs. Gunter controlled the tempo with 67 plays to 35 for the Eagles, who got within 20-13 in the third quarter.
“I feel like there’s no doubt they’re going to tweak some things and attack us on both sides of the ball,” Fieszel said. “But I also don’t think you go into the fourth round and change who you are. Who they are is good enough.”
After being pushed by Lexington in the area round, the Tigers had a much easier time last Friday in a 53-14 victory over Comanche, despite a one-hour rain delay in the middle of it. Jantz had four catches for 115 yards, including a 93-yard TD, ran seven times for 70 yards and a score and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Everson while Everson scored on the ground and Reed added a pair of rushing touchdowns as Gunter held a 36-7 half-time lead and cruised from there.
Weather is expected to be a factor this Friday as well with temperatures hovering around the high 30s and some sort of precipitation.
“We’ve been working things with wet balls this week to get them familiar,” Fieszel said. “We’ve got to go in with a plan and weather and environment can alter that plan. We’ve got to be prepared to adjust our plan.”
Gunter beat Holliday, 48-7, in the region semifinals last season on the way to the title game before realignment put them in the same district, making this the third meeting in the last 18 games played by the Tigers.
“It’s a little strange,” Fieszel said. “I don’t know where we’ve had a time when we’ve played a team three times in two years.”
Outside of the loss to Gunter, Holliday might have the most impressive resume in the region. During the regular season, the Eagles only had one victory that was closer than 14 points and it came in the season-opener against Iowa Park and in the nine wins did not allow more than 18 points in a game, posting four shutouts and single digits in three others.
The Eagles opened the playoffs with a 66-20 victory against Dublin and then rallied to beat Clifton, 24-21, in overtime. Clifton was the district champ over Lexington, which provided the toughest challenge for Gunter so far this season.
Last week Holliday made the region final for the first time since 2011 with a 38-9 victory against Buffalo. The Eagles built a 31-0 victory by the time Buffalo scored late in the third quarter. Crue Jackson ran 21 times for 91 yards and caught a 43-yard TD pass from Jett Johnson and Connor Cox ran for two touchdowns and returned an interception 30 yards for a score.
Holliday has been without leading rusher Tristin Boyd, for the past two games due to a medical issue. The junior has 126 carries for 1,147 yards and 16 touchdowns in 10 games.
Filling in has been Jackson and Cox, both of whom are on the verge of 1,000-yard seasons. Cox, a sophomore has 98 carries for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns while Jackson, a senior, is at 108 carries for 843 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Johnson has completed 47-of-83 passes for 869 yards and nine touchdowns with four interceptions and also run 69 times for 386 yards and eight scores. His favorite target is Kody Jones, who has 15 receptions for 279 yards and three TDs. Nathan Sheen is the only other Eagle with more than five catches, totaling 12 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown.
The defense, which is allowing 10 points per game and forced 33 turnovers, is led by Johnson’s 127 tackles. Jake Turner and Tanner Bayard each have 100 stops while Connor Hill is almost at the century mark with 91.
“They’re extremely aggressive and extremely athletic. They’re always going to bring five people,” Fieszel said. “They play really fast and a lot of people can’t handle that.”