POTTSBORO — At the beginning of the season, if you had told the Cardinals they would have earned just a single postseason victory, they may have settled for that.
After back-to-back bi-district losses, the opportunity to advance in the playoffs is something Pottsboro wasn't going to take lightly.
So the wins started piling up, and they continued as the season wore on. An undefeated regular season followed. After three more victories, the Cardinals are on the verge of a couple of milestones.
“I have a lot of confidence in our team. We have to take it a week at a time,” senior receiver Ezra Fritts said. “Everybody plays together and guys stepped up at their positions.”
This week brings one of the biggest games in program history as Pottsboro (13-0) faces Gladewater (10-3) in the Class 3A Division I Region II final at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Sulphur Springs.
The winner will face either Pilot Point or Brock in the state semifinals next week.
“We thought we had a good team. Early in the season we had a couple questions at multiple positions,” Pottsboro head coach Matt Poe said. “Our players have gotten better every week. The bigger the games have gotten the better they've been.”
The Cardinals are in the region final for the first time since 2016 and a victory sends them to the semifinals for the second time ever, matching the 2008 squad as the best year in school history. This year's squad would have a slight edge because it would be the 14th win of the season, surpassing the school record done during that '08 run.
Pottsboro advanced to the fourth round with a 38-31 victory against Malakoff, which was the state runner-up in 2018. Braden Plyler's nine-yard touchdown run with 36 seconds remaining proved to be the difference and the Cardinals survived Malakoff's Hail Mary with no time left to try and force overtime.
“If we can beat Malakoff, we can play with anybody. There's eight teams left and we're one of them,” Poe said. “We beat one of the best teams in the region. It doesn't mean we're going to beat everyone but it shows the potential we have.”
Plyler completed 11-of-24 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns and ran 24 times for 84 yards and two scores, Jasek Hooker caught five passes for 85 yards and a score and Titus Lyons had two receptions for 49 yards and a score.
Cy Shope finished with nine carries for 81 yards and a touchdown before leaving with an injury in the second quarter. Earlier this week Poe said the senior running back, who has totaled 1,823 yards and 32 touchdowns on 206 carries, was day-to-day and expected to play.
“Even though we got down at times, no one panicked,” Poe said. “We kept grinding. We hadn't really been in that situation.”
The reason for that is most of Pottsboro's games have been decided at half-time. Seven games have been decided by at least 30 points, none of them had been by single digits — the closest margin of victory is 12 —and only four times has the game not ended with a victory of at least three touchdowns.
Last week against Malakoff, the Cardinals continued to extend the program record for points, surpassing 600 points for the the first time. They are nearly 100 points ahead of the 2015's mark of 525. Shope's success on the ground, combined with the connection of Plyler-to-Lyons have made Pottsboro tough for anyone to slow down.
The Cardinals have scored at least 38 points in every game but one and scored at least 60 four times.
The seeds for this success came early in the schedule. When Pottsboro handed Gunter, which is playing in the 3A Division II Region II final, its only loss — 27-14 — so far in 2019, it was the first time anyone had beaten the Tigers in the regular season since 2015.
“We kinda realized we had a team,” senior linebacker Zach Wideman said about that victory. “We're on the same page.”
Gladewater is in the region final for the first time since 2013 and has won six straight since its last loss, a 17-14 defeat to Mineola in 8-3A (I) play. The Bears shared the district title with Sabine but earned the top seed for the playoffs with a 40-16 victory as the tie-breaker.
That win is one of two common opponents. Pottsboro earned a 47-35 win against Sabine in the area round and also had a 48-27 victory over Van Alstyne in District 5-3A (I) action. Gladewater beat VA in the area round by a 72-43 margin.
“I guess it gives us a little familiarity. We're different than Van Alstyne and Sabine in what we do,” Poe said. “We realize it's going to be tough. They execute really well.”
The other losses for the Bears were 35-28 against Atlanta and 45-0 to Texarkana Pleasant Grove.
Last week's 27-7 victory over Winnsboro was a district rematch. Tristan Holmes completed 7-of-11 passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns — all of them to D.J. Allen, who totaled four catches for 100 yards — and ran for a touchdown. Winnsboro's lone touchdown came in the first quarter and tied the score at the end of the opening eight minutes. It was the fifth time Gladewater held an opponent to two TDs or less.
“Defensively they fly around. It reminds me a lot of what we ask our kids to do,” Poe said. “They're extremely athletic, do their jobs extremely well.”