The setting was ripe for an upset — a very familiar opponent in a steady rain with the temperature hovering around 40 degrees. It was exactly what the Holliday Eagles were hoping for with the forecast.
Even the best-laid plans can still go awry with some weird bounces on fumbles or a break on special teams yet the Gunter Tigers are not exactly the type of team to wilt in such conditions. It had to give the Eagles no comfort to look over during warm-ups and see them preparing in sleeveless attire.
Neither rain nor cold nor gloom of night stayed these Tigers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds — in this case the state quarterfinal round — as Gunter defeated Holliday, 27-6, in the Class 3A Division II Region II final at Denison’s Munson Stadium on Friday night.
“There obviously were plays on our end that would have gone differently if the weather had been better,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “I’m really, really proud of these kids to do what we needed to win this game.”
The Tigers (14-0) will face Canadian (13-1), which beat Abernathy 19-7, in a state semifinal at 7 p.m. on Friday at Vernon. It is the third straight season the two have met for a berth in the championship game with Gunter winning the first two, including last year at Vernon.
Dylan Jantz ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries and went over 1,000 yards for the season, Ethan Everson and Bryson Rigsby added TD runs and the Tigers came up with four big red-zone stands to give Gunter its third straight region championship and a 45th victory in the past 46 games.
Jett Johnson ran for 92 yards on 15 carries for Holliday (12-2), which had both losses come against Gunter and is 19-3 dating back to the middle of last season with all the defeats against the Tigers.
The Eagles, which lost 30-13 in the District 5-3A (II) match-up seven weeks ago, managed just eight first downs and 161 total yards.
Even though Gunter fumbled twice and muffed a punt, the Tigers avoided turnovers on those plays while coming up with three turnovers of their own.
The second was a fumble recovery by Grant Gilbert at the Holliday 18-yard line when Johnson was hit trying to throw in the middle of the third quarter. Three plays later Everson scored on a seven-yard run for a 20-6 advantage.
“Once we got to 20-6, we really felt that we were in position to work the clock,” Fieszel said. “We felt like we were playing good enough to win. Our plan was to run the ball right at them.”
The offensive line paved the way for 51 carries and 242 yards and Gunter did not attempt a throw in the second half.
Rigsby capped the scoring on a one-yard plunge with 2:03 remaining. That drive started when Peyton Lowe picked off Johnson at the Eagle 36 and the Tigers melted off four minutes of the clock.
Early in the fourth quarter Holliday had a chance to get on the scoreboard. Gunter was pinned at its three-yard line and the ensuing punt and 15-yard return set the Eagles up at the Tiger 22. Holliday then had first-and-10 at the 12 but couldn’t get any closer and Grayson Germany’s 35-yard field goal missed with 9:39 left.
It was the fourth and final time the Eagles got inside the 15-yard line and were unable to get touchdowns.
“That was the game. We were able to plant ourselves in and keep them out of the end zone,” Fieszel said. “We were able to make the timely stops. They were going to get cracks at it and we had to bow our necks.”
Gunter’s defense came up big twice in the red zone for the Tigers to hold a 14-6 half-time lead instead of going into the locker room tied.
Holliday was forced to settle for a 20-yard field goal by Germany with two seconds remaining in the second quarter.
The drive started at the Gunter 46 with 1:33 left in the half. Holliday got the ball back after Jantz recovered a fumble by Johnson at the four-yard line and the Tigers were forced to punt.
Using a hook-and-ladder for 22 yards to keep the drive alive, the Eagles had first-and-goal at the three-yard line with six seconds on the clock. A throw to the end zone was incomplete and Germany then connected for the short field goal.
Holliday’s only other scoring possession came in the middle of the second quarter. A five-yard punt that looked to be tipped gave the Eagles the ball at the Gunter 38. It was quickly first-and-10 at the 11 but Gunter held strong and Germany came on to boot a 22-yard field goal.
Outside of those three possessions, Holliday had just 10 yards on its three other first-half series.
Gunter’s first series of the night ended with a touchdown as Jantz capped the 10-play drive with a five-yard toss through the left side with 4:56 left in the opening quarter.
The next time Gunter had the ball it ran into red zone problems. A face-mask penalty on third down allowed the drive to continue and the Tigers had a first down at the 21 and got to the 11 but were just short of a first down. A bobbled snap on third down led to a 37-yard field goal attempt by Evan Gonzalez and it was wide right in the first minute of the second quarter.
After Holliday cut the margin to 7-3, Gunter responded in two plays. Lowe returned the kickoff 40 yards to the Holliday 48 and two plays later Jantz, who totaled 101 yards on 11 carries in the first half, took the toss through the left side and raced to the end zone untouched for a 46-yard touchdown at the 5:38 mark of the quarter.