GUNTER — When they arrived on campus four years ago, the history of Gunter football always ended in a roadblock.
The biggest hurdle was the region final and the Tigers hadn’t been able to clear that obstacle.
Now, a close core of seniors has a chance to win a second state championship during a stretch that has seen them almost never lose.
“We’ve been working our tails off since seven grade to get to this point and we’ve been rewarded,” senior running back Clayton Reed said. “After that 2016 year, expectations rose a lot.”
That season jump-started everything — the Tigers went 16-0, smashing records and opponents on the way to the 3A Division II crown. The following year Gunter was the state runner-up, their only loss coming in the title game to Newton.
Last season the only defeat came against Canadian in the state semifinals, keeping them from a rematch with Newton.
And now there is just one more loss on the ledger so far, against an undefeated Pottsboro team that will play for the 3A Division I title.
Adding it all up produces a 59-3 record from freshman year entering the final game of this season as Gunter (14-1) faces Paul Pewitt (14-1) for the Class 3A Division II state championship at 7 p.m. on Thursday at AT&T Stadium.
“They’ve earned it. They’ve worked extremely hard. They’ve trusted the process,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “They’re in the moment now which is where they need to be but looking back they’ll see it’s pretty rare what they’ve accomplished.”
Whether it’s Peyton Lowe, who was the Defensive MVP of the title game as a freshman, or Reed, who played in the title game as a sophomore, or lineman Colton Mercer, who will have his first opportunity to play for a crown, this four-year run has been built on an assembly line of talent ready for the moment, no matter when it comes in your career.
“Buying into the program — when it’s your turn, it’s your turn so be prepared when it’s your time,” Mercer said.
Players graduate. Assistants leave to become head coaches. But the underlying messages remain the same and are a big reason why each season has ended so late in December.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Fieszel said. “Within the last four years, there’s several times we were close in earlier rounds to getting beat and the kids made plays.”
One of those games came last week when Gunter came away with a 27-20 victory against Canadian. During this four-year run, the Tigers have met up with the Wildcats in the semifinals every time and avenged last year’s 17-7 loss — the only defeat against Canadian in the span. Lowe had four catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns — both in the fourth quarter — as Gunter rallied from a 17-3 deficit in the first half and 20-13 margin at the end of the third quarter.
“I saw their fight and determination. That’s what that game was about,” said Fieszel, who earned his 150th career win on Friday. “I can’t say enough about the resiliency of our kids and our seniors.”
The Tigers were able to avoid overtime when linebacker Bryson Rigsby made a tackle at the goal line on an untimed down when there was a penalty in the end zone as Canadian had a shot at tying thegame with one second remaining. Gunter held Canadian two touchdowns below its previous season low of 35 points. The Tigers have allowed more than three touchdowns just twice, including their only loss, 27-14, against Pottsboro in the second game of the season.
“When the season starts, we weren’t thinking about it. There’s other things to do before we get there,” Reed said about the journey this team has made. “Since the playoffs began though, that is when it becomes all you talk about.”
Pewitt won a region title for the first time since 2010 — a win that came against Gunter — and then advanced to the title game for fourth time and first since 2005. The Brahmas are seeking their second title to go with winning it all in 1998.
The Brahmas’ only loss came during District 11-3A (II) play and it was to a familiar opponent for Gunter. Daingerfield edged Pewitt, 42-38, but the Brahmas avenged the loss in the region final with a 45-42 win.
Gunter opened the season with a 22-21 comeback victory over Daingerfield.
Pewitt has allowed more than 26 points in just three games — both meetings with Daingerfield and a 45-33 win over Elysian Fields.
The Brahmas advanced to the championship game with a 24-18 victory against East Bernard, getting a goal line stand at the end to avoid overtime — just like Gunter did.
Kadrien Johnson ran 10 times for 60 yards and two touchdowns, Cross Holder finished with 17 carries for 86 yards and Lajathen Allen had 20 carries for 78 yards and returned an interception for a score.
East Bernard did hold Pewitt to its lowest point total of the season, surpassing the season-opening 27 points against New Boston. The Brahmas have scored at least 41 points in 10 games and had been rolling through the playoffs, including a 53-20 victory against Bells in the region semis and a 55-24 victory over Harmony in the area round when five players each gained 100 rushing yards.
For the season Pewitt, which runs the Slot-T, has three 1,000-yard rushers, a fourth that is close and another runner with more than 800 yards.
“With that offense it’s hard to key on one guy. I think we’re going to have a good plan,” Fieszel said. “We’re going to have to play a very technical and smart football game.”
Allen leads the way with 233 carries for 2,092 yards and 28 touchdowns while Holder is at 162 carries for 1,186 yards and 16 TDs and Kadrien Johnson is at 107 carries for 1,063 yards and 16 touchdowns. Deiontray Hill has 137 carries for 963 yards and nine scores while Kei’untray Hawkins has 89 carries for 810 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Brahmas have thrown just 41 passes all season with Holder completing 21 of them for 522 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Allen has 11 catches for 190 yards and a score while all three of Dillon Coffey’s receptions have covered 143 yards and made it to the end zone.
“They are big and strong and fast,” Fieszel said. “We’re going to have to be our very best and the kids know that.”