GUNTER — In between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Tigers have become accustomed to a celebration involving another Holliday.
The bracket has provided Gunter with a path to the region title that has proved successful each of the past three seasons — and is now Groundhog Day for one opponent. The Holliday Eagles have been among the region’s best but been eliminated by the region’s best. Once again, they are hoping to avoid a similar fate this fall.
If the Tigers are to continue their mastery of the region, it will take another win against an opponent they always run into this time of year as Gunter (12-1) faces Holliday (10-3) in the Class 3A Division II Region II final at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Memorial Stadium in Wichita Falls.
“The excitement of that brings enthusiasm to get the job done,” senior linebacker Peyton Lowe said. “There’s a lot of pressure. The guys who have graduated, they’re looking back and want us to keep going. If we make it this far, no matter the opponent, we want to go as far as we can.”
The winner will face either Canadian or Abernathy in the state semifinals next week.
Standing in the way — again — is a Holliday squad which says the same thing about the Tigers.
“Every game we’ve had with them is a big game. Every game has a life of its own. I think it’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “We’ve got to have the kids ready to play.”
This is the fifth time in three seasons the teams have played each other, following up district contests the last two years with region final match-ups. Gunter won the region title for the the third straight season with a 27-6 victory a year ago by holding the Eagles to eight first downs and just 161 yards.
“We’ve got to treat them like a playoff opponent and not a district opponent,” senior lineman Josh Magers said. “We’ve got to stay focused on our game plan.”
The common denominator in the meetings is the Tigers have had the upper hand on Holliday with strong defensive efforts — the Eagles have not scored more than 13 points and managed single digits in the other three outings.
“That’s a huge part of our success, in the way we prepare,” Fieszel said. “The coaches aren’t having to demand things get done out there, it’s really a senior-led team.”
In Gunter’s 20-7 victory in 5-3A (II) action, Lowe had a TD run and returned a fumble for a score as the Tigers took a 14-7 lead at half-time before Bryson Rigsby added a touchdown run in the fourth to provide some breathing room. Holliday managed just 114 yards, including 27 carries for seven yards.
Outside of Gunter’s only loss, 27-14 against Pottsboro, the Tigers’ second-lowest point total came against Holliday. And since scoring the lone touchdown against Gunter, the Eagles have scored at least 33 points in five of the following seven games.
Last week Gunter moved on with a 47-14 victory over Rogers when the Tigers were up 33-0 at half-time. Clayton Reed had 13 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown and also added four catches for 97 yards and two scored, Rigsby chipped in 13 carries for 75 yards and two TDs and Gunter forced six turnovers with four in the first two quarters.
“We capitalized on all those turnovers,” Fieszel said. “That was the story of the first half.”
Holliday finished third in the District 5-3A (II) standings after a 20-14 loss against City View in a match-up to decide the runner-up spot behind Gunter. The Eagles’ other defeat came against Iowa Park, 35-28, in overtime in the season-opener. Iowa Park is also still playing, having reached the Class 4A Division II Region I final with a 12-1 record.
Last year’s appearance in the region final was Holliday’s first in seven years and the Eagles are trying to reach the state semifinals for the first time since 1996.
To get there they will need to continue relying on a strong defense and an offense which gets two-thirds of its production from running the ball.
Holliday has held its last seven opponents, all since losing to Gunter, to two touchdowns or less and done it nine times overall. Only Iowa Park has scored more than 20 points against the Eagles, and they needed the OT period to do it.
“When you watch them on video, they’ve gotten better since then but I think we’ve gotten better since then too,” Fieszel said.
Cason Foster, Connor Hill and Mark Hardin lead the team in tackles.
Kase Patterson has completed 75-of-138 passes for 1,139 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions to go with six rushing touchdowns.
Tristin Boyd, who did not play in the first meeting this season against Gunter, has 81 carries for 803 yards and nine touchdowns while Seth Atchley is at 396 yards and four touchdowns on 65 carries, Austin Jones has 90 carries for 371 yards and three TDs and Jaxx Johnson has picked up 298 yards and seven touchdowns on 43 carries.
The Eagles have scored 39 times on the ground and nine players have reached the end zone at least twice.
Holliday’s three main weapons in the passing game are Hardin (16 catches for 245 yards and a touchdown), Tucker Strealy (11 catches for 219 yards and five TDs) and Cole Harrison (10 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown).
“They’re a really good football program. We’ve seen them a lot over the last couple years,” Fieszel said. “It’s not a surprise they’re in the position they’re in.”