Gunter goes for 5th straight region title

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel and the Tigers go for a fifth straight region title as they face Eastland on Thursday night at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

The Tigers find themselves in a familiar place, defending their region title for the fourth time now. They just happen to be doing it in a place that is unfamiliar when it comes to football.

Gunter will take the field that the Texas Rangers used to call home but the surroundings won’t faze a program trying for back-to-back state championships and a third title in five years.

“The kids have done everything we’ve asked them to do. They’ve put in the work and earned the right to be in the region final again,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “When we push them in practice and push them in a game to be better, they respond.”

And while the Tigers may be taking on a new challenger to their region throne, they expect nothing but a challenge at this point in the bracket as Gunter (12-1) faces Eastland (10-3) in the Class 3A Division II Region II final at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

“We feel like we’ve got a good plan to be ready in three days,” Fieszel said. “On the flip side, I think our offense can be tough to prepare for on a short week.”

The winner will face either Canadian or Childress in the state semifinals next week. A Gunter-Canadian match-up would make it five straight years the two programs will meet for a berth in the title game.

Gunter is coming off a 44-19 victory against City View in the region semifinals. Ethan Sloan had 15 carries for 141 yards and three touchdowns, Ashton Bennett added 16 carries for 86 yards and a score and Hudson Graham added a TD on the ground and threw a touchdown pass to Cole Lemons.

The Tigers built a 36-6 lead in the third quarter and while City View tacked on some touchdowns aroundGunter’s final score, the 25-point margin was by far the closest of the Tigers’ three playoff games.

Gunter opened the postseason with a 59-0 victory over Rice and then followed that up with a 59-6 win against Henrietta. In both games the Tigers were up by at least 35 points after the opening quarter.

“We knew going in it would be a four-quarter game,” Fieszel said. “Going back to the Leonard game (Oct. 9), our starters hadn’t played four quarters since whether it was the bye or the game with Blue Ridge being cancelled or just the wins. That was definitely something much needed. It’s going to be another four-quarter game this week.”

Eastland is having its best season since making the region final in three consecutive seasons from 2011-13 but the Mavericks haven’t advanced to the state semifinals since the 1980s.

The program dealt with injuries and suspensions as it started out 0-3 following a move down in division during the latest realignment — Whitesboro upset them in the bi-district round last year — but then righted the ship with its 10-game winning streak.

“Extremely talented team. Really well-coached,” Fieszel said. “They play at that NASCAR pace, they snap the ball every 10 seconds or so. That’s going to be a challenge.”

In a rematch from the second week of the season, Eastland came away a 28-24 victory over Holliday, which took the first meeting 29-28, last Friday to deny the Tigers a rematch of the last two region finals.

Behren Morton’s 12-yard run with 2:35 remaining was the difference and came after the Mavericks were down 24-14 in the middle of the third quarter.

Morton, who is committed to Texas Tech, thrown for 3,389 yards and 36 TDs and rushed for 857 yards and 19 scores, completed 23-of-30 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns and ran 17 times for 112 yards and a TD while Austin Rodgers totaled 86 yards and a score on six catches, Dylan Wilson chipped in 75 yards and a touchdown on six receptions and Brandon Fielding added 11 carries for 66 yards.

Holliday did manage to gain almost 500 yards in the loss, including 313 yards on 46 carries.

It was also by far the lowest point total for the Mavericks during their current winning streak as they entered the contest averaging 61.3 points and having scored at least 49 points eight times in that stretch.

Eastland eliminated Gunter’s districtmate Bells in the area round, 49-22, but the Panthers still ran 76 times for 379 yards and nearly had three 100-yard rushers.

“That’s extremely helpful,” Fieszel said. “You see some of those match-ups throughout the game and how they measure up compared to what you know. To see them against those teams has been a benefit.”

Region final

Class 3A Division II Region II

What: Gunter vs. Eastland

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Globe Life Park in Arlington