SULPHUR SPRINGS — Wearing an underdog tag from the start of the season, the Whitewright Tigers were an onside kick away from pulling off a first-round upset.
It might not have been a surprise for a team which had won more games than the previous two seasons combined and had to win its final district contest to earn the last playoff spot on a three-way tie-breaker.
With nothing to lose going up against District 10-3A (II) champ Big Sandy Harmony, the Tigers used big passing plays to put a scare into the Eagles before Harmony held off Whitewright, 52-47, in a Class 3A Division II Region III bi-district contest.
“I think it was a very good initial season,” first-year Tigers head coach Kevin Wiggins said. “We checked a lot of boxes. Now it’s time to set new goals and smash them.”
Marshall Mangrum completed 19-of-46 throws for 416 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions and also ran for a score, Kayden Carraway caught five passes for 155 yards and two TDs, Trevor McCartney added four receptions for 105 yards and a score and Dylan Cordell and Kylan Watson had TD receptions for Whitewright (5-6), which rallied from a 22-point deficit midway in the third quarter to have a chance.
“These kids fight. We had done that every game, no matter the outcome,” Wiggins said. “They fight to the end. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Isaac Edwards totaled 208 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries and Michael Everett added 17 carries for 102 yards and two TDs for Harmony (8-3), which will face either Paul Pewitt or Corrigan-Camden in the area round next week.
The Eagles finished with 542 yards, including 62 carries for 425 yards, but couldn’t shake Whitewright until it recovered an onside kick with 49 seconds left.
Mangrum had just scrambled for a 16-yard touchdown to pull the Tigers within five.
“He was a great leader. He was QB1,” Wiggins said. “Just the moxie and the way he controls the huddle. I can’t say enough about the kid.”
With back-to-back TD passes in the span of 13 seconds in the latter half of the third quarter, Mangrum got the Tigers right back in it. Whitewright finished the game with just 16 yards on 17 carries, so the way to win would come through the air.
“We went in knowing we’d have a hard time running the ball,” Wiggins said. “We were going to spread it out and try to attack.”
Whitewright turned it over on downs on its first two series in the second half and Harmony got touchdown runs by Edwards to widen the gap to 44-22 in the middle of the third.
Carraway hauled in a 32-yard TD one-handed and McCartney recovered the onside kick. Two plays later Cordell caught a 29-yard touchdown pass in the end zone.
The deficit was down to three, 44-41, when Dylan Halbardier pressured Gage Goddard into a bad throw, it got tipped by Brandon Woods and Reilly Evans snagged the interception and returned it 23 yards for a score. In less than two minutes, the Tigers produced 19 points.
Whitewright had a chance to tie the game on a drive that at one point was backed up to the one-yard line before getting going. It looked like the Tigers had taken the lead with a 75-yard hook-and-lateral but it was called back for a blindside block just shy of midfield. The drive eventually got to the 14-yard line and Aaron Pitt attempted hit first field goal of the season — 34 yards — but it went wide right with 9:06 remaining.
Harmony made it a two-score margin with 4:40 left when Hunter McNeel caught a three-yard TD pass on fourth-and-goal.
Goddard came up with an interception on Whitewright’s ensuing drive but the Eagles couldn’t run out the clock. A first-down sack put the Tigers at their own six but they went 94 yards in the next six plays, capped by Mangrum’s TD scramble, to give themselves a final chance.
Whitewright pulled within six points at half-time on the third touchdown in the final minute and a half of the second quarter.
Just after Harmony had a 41-yard TD run by Edwards, Whitewright recovered the onside kick at its 49-yard line. On the first snap of the series, Mangrum dropped back and hit Carraway deep along the right side for the 51-yard TD with 19 seconds on the clock. The conversion failed but the Tigers were down just 28-22.
Harmony got in scoring position with four seconds left from the Whitewright 36. Cordell intercepted the pass to the end zone to end the half.
Whitewright scored to make it a 22-16 deficit at the 1:11 mark of the stanza. Xy-Rion Daniels had a 33-yard kickoff return to the Eagles 44-yard line and the drive was kept alive when Harmony committed pass interference as the Tigers faced fourth-and-10 at the 20-yard line.
Mangrum hit Watson over the middle from five yards out on the ensuing play and connected with Pitt for the two-point conversion.
Harmony had taken a 22-8 advantage with just over four minutes remaining in the half when Everett scored on a seven-yard run.
Trent Hart broke an eight-all tie with a seven-yard run early in the second quarter.
The first quarter concluded after a very unstable opening 12 minutes. Whitewright opened the game with an onside kick it recovered but a penalty nullified the play.
Then the teams traded fumbles on consecutive plays — Woods recovered as Harmony was just outside the red zone, only for the Eagles to get it right back on the Tigers’ first snap of the game.
Everett then scored from 19 yards out to put Harmony in front 8-0 after the conversion.
Whitewright responded in three plays when Mangrum rolled to his right and hit McCartney, who slipped a tackle and went 51 yards for the touchdown and Ryne Godbey caught the conversion to tie the game with eight minutes to go in the quarter.
Watson recovered the ensuing onside kick but Harmony recovered another fumble. Late in the frame it was Whitewright’s turn to get another turnover — each team had three in the half — as Radley Hamm jumped on the ball just after the Eagles marched past midfield.