ARLINGTON — When it came to this Gunter senior class, they left it just as good as they found it.
Four years ago they arrived on campus and the Tigers capped their introduction to high school football with a perfect season and the first state title in school history. In between they came close to adding another, losing in the title game in 2017 and then last year in the semifinals.
“They finish with 60 wins in four years. It’s a special group,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. I’m so proud they got to finish out on top.”
This time in earning a second championship it was a trio of running backs sharing the snaps and the carries, all of them finding the end zone and then switching over to help a defense that pitch a second-half shutout.
“We’re all team players. We don’t care who scores,” senior Bryson Rigsby said. “We just want to win. That’s the way it’s always been.”
It all added up to the Tigers pulling away for a 43-22 victory to win the Class 3A Division II state championship at AT&T Stadium in front of 15,233.
“It’s an extreme sense of accomplishment. You start off in January and work your tail off all winter and spring, and then summer conditioning, and obviously two-a-days going into the season,” Fieszel said. “Our kids finished as state champions. There’s nothing better than that.”
Clayton Reed had 17 carries for 119 yards and two scores as the Offensive MVP, Rigsby added 18 carries for 99 yards and a score, Peyton Lowe finished with 88 yards and two TDs on 10 carries and Hudson Graham also scored on the ground for Gunter (14-1), which ran for 361 yards on 55 carries and held the Brahmas to only 52 yards after the break.
“It’s the greatest feeling ever,” Reed said. “Being able to win your last game as a senior is the best.”
Lowe earned Defensive MVP honors for the second time with a team-high seven and a half tackles with two and a half for a loss.
“It feels great. I think there’s a little bit more excitement being senior year and going out on top,” Lowe said. “You can’t ask for anything better. I’m at a loss for words. This is amazing.”
Kei’untrey Hawkins had five carries for 48 yards, La-Jathan Allen added 15 carries for 46 yards, Cross Holder totaled 33 yards and a TD on 13 carries and Kadrien Johnson scored twice, including a 75-yard interception return for Paul Pewitt (14-1), which was trying to win its second title and first since 1998. The Brahmas, who came in with more than 6,200 yards rushing — 416 per game — and totaled 130 yards on 42 carries, had their best season since finishing as the runner-up in 2005.
“We felt like our plan was really good,” Fieszel said. “They were kinda getting out of what they usually do. We kept the plan the way it was and the kids would hang in there.”
But they proved to be no match for the Tigers over the final two quarters. Gunter gave up next to nothing on those five Pewitt possessions, forcing a pair of turnovers on downs, getting an interception from David Denton and another drive was three-and-out. The best drive was the one that opened the first quarter and gained 19 yards.
“We followed our keys, fired off hard,” senior defensive lineman Braden Sloan said. “We had to come ready to play. Up the middle, we were expecting that. We tried to stop that as much as we could.”
That effort allowed Gunter to run its way to a title. All 29 plays in the second half by the Tigers were on the ground. It started on their first series of the third, an eight-play, 76-yard march with Lowe getting into the end zone on a four-yard run with 5:21 to go in the quarter and give Gunter the lead for good.
“It all starts up front whenever the line makes big holes, there’s big plays to be made,” Reed said. “That’s what happened tonight.”
After Pewitt turned it over on downs at its 44 late in the third, Gunter widened the gap when Rigsby punched it in from four yards away on the first snap of the fourth quarter.
At that point the Brahmas almost had no choice but to go for it again on fourth down and when the Tigers took over at the Pewitt 37, Lowe produced the final points on a nine-yard run with 8:20 remaining. Denton officially sealed in the win with his interception in the final minutes.
“A lot of selflessness. A lot of blocking for each other, faking for each other. What you do without the football?” Fieszel said. “They work their tail off for each other. We talk about what a team is, what a brotherhood is and the way you play for each other and I thought that was on full display.”
Going into half-time, however, it was anybody’s game as Paul Pewitt tied things at 22 with a touchdown run by Johnson in the closing seconds of the second quarter.
The Brahmas were on the verge of going down three scores in the middle of the second when everything changed. Gunter had just gotten past midfield and was holding a 22-8 lead when Graham was picked off by Johnson on a deep throw to the right side.
Johnson was able to cut back and forth across the field for a 75-yard TD return and Paul Pewitt was trailing, 22-14, when the conversion pass failed with 5:16 to go in the half.
Due to a penalty against the Tigers on the return, the kickoff was moved up 15 yards and the Brahmas pulled off an onside kick with Allen recovering at the Gunter 30. They were unable to turn that into any points, throwing an incompletion on fourth-and-long at the 24-yard line, but two plays later Johnson came up with his second interception.
Starting from the Gunter 37 with 1:30 remaining, Paul Pewitt needed almost all of it to get into the end zone on a diving attempt from Johnson on fourth-and-goal from the run with 10 seconds showing on the clock.
The Tigers had controlled the game for the first quarter and a half. Gunter took the ball to open the game and needed just seven plays to cover 70 yards as Reed capped it with a 12-yard TD run.
Paul Pewitt gained a first down and pinned the Tigers inside their 20 with the punt but the distance didn’t matter. Reed had a 38-yard run to provide some breathing room and Graham eventually scored on a one-yard run with 4:21 to go in the first for a 14-0 advantage while Gunter was averaging more than 10 yards per play.
Paul Pewitt got on the board with the ensuing possession by way of the pass. It used a throw back across the field to Allen for nine yards on third-and-eight and then he made a leaping catch for 31 yards along the right sideline to put the Brahmas just outside the red zone.
Holder closed out the series with a quarterback sneak from the one and then hit Johnson for the conversion to make it 14-8.
Gunter’s third possession ended like the first two. Rigsby converted a third-down run of 15 yards to the Pewitt 17 and Reed took a toss right from a yard out for the 22-8 advantage with 8:46 left in the half.
The Tigers final three possessions of the quarter ended with the two interceptions and a kneeldown before the half, allowing the Brahmas to pull even going into the third quarter.
“We hit about a five or six minute skid right there,” Fieszel said. “We had some bumps and they had a lot of momentum. We had to come in and just stop the bleeding.”