Gunter, Canadian square off in semis...again

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Gunter's Hudson Graham and the Tigers take on Canadian in a Class 3A Division II state semifinal on Friday afternoon at Abilene Christian University.

It comes as no surprise we are here once again, on the verge of the state title game and the Gunter Tigers and Canadian Wildcats will square off for one of the spots.

It has been this way for five years now and the berth has seemed to become a birthright for one of them. Canadian has dominated Region I while Gunter has been the king of Region II. There have been some different challengers along the way but the results have been the same collision course at this point in the bracket.

“It’s not something we take for granted,” Tigers head coach Jake Fieszel said. “Looking back at this point each year is something to be proud of but there’s so much work that goes into it from January through the summer to get here. There’s a lot of sacrifice all around.”

And in three of the four meetings, Gunter has found a way to come out on top. There was no closer finish than last season, when Bryson Rigsby’s tackle on Twister Kelton inches from the goal line preserved a 27-20 victory and the Tigers went on to win their second championship in four years.

The Wildcats now seek revenge and chase a title of their own in the latest installment of this great rivalry as Gunter (13-1) faces Canadian (13-1) in a Class 3A Division II semifinal at 4 p.m. on Friday at Abilene Christian University.

“We’ve got four years of video and four games of data. There’s a lot both teams will draw on,” Fieszel said. “You do your work and doing what you’ve done all year is where you have success. The team that takes came of the football and plays fast is going to win this game.”

The winner will take on either Franklin or Waskom for the state championship at 3 p.m. on Dec. 17 at AT&T Stadium.

When the Tigers lost their top three rushers to graduation, they turned to a pair of sophomores to fill the gaps. Ashton Bennett was on defense as a freshman while Ethan Sloan was at times the sixth option to get the ball.

Heading into this week, Bennett has 113 carries for 926 yards and 16 TDs while Sloan had 95 carries for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns to go with 35 catches for 606 yards and eight scores.

The passing game has become a bigger part of the offense in 2020. Last year in 16 games, Gunter threw for a little more than 1,100 yards. Through 13 games (one win is via forfeit), Hudson Graham has completed 100-of-141 passes for 1,842 yards with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions. In addition he has 655 yards and 14 touchdowns on 89 carries.

Cole Lemons leads the way with 47 catches for 898 yards and 10 TDs.

“I definitely thought we could be really good and expected to play really well. We have guys understanding their roles,” Fieszel said. “We knew we’d put the ball in the air more this year. Obviously that’s holding true.”

Gunter is coming off another decisive playoff victory, its fourth straight. The Tigers raced to a 47-7 half-time lead on the way to a 61-28 victory over Eastland which only looked that close when the Mavericks scored three times in the fourth quarter after Gunter held a 54-7 advantage through three periods.

Graham had nine carries for 159 yards and four touchdowns and completed 9-of-13 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns, Lemons had three catches for 115 yards and two TDs as well as a 19-yard touchdown run, Sloan had four catches for 93 yards and a score and ran seven times for 49 yards and Bennett had 12 carries for 122 yards.

“We had some good things happen and took advantage of some opportunities. The kids were executing in all three phases,” Fieszel said.

In playoff wins over Rice, Henrietta, City View and Eastland, Gunter has outscored its opponents 192-13 before half-time.

Canadian, which is in the state semifinals for the seventh straight season with the first two coming in 2A Division I, also carries a 12-game winning streak into the match-up after the Wildcats dropped their Week 2 contest against Iowa Park, 28-21.

Only one of their victories has been by less than 30 points — a 46-19 win over Bushland the week after the defeat.

Canadian then scored at least 52 points in every outing until last week’s 45-14 victory over Childress in the Region I final. Hayze Hufstedler had 18 carries for 215 yards and four touchdowns, Josh Culwell completed 14-of-18 passes for 168 yards with a touchdown to Jake Krehbiel and an interception and Luke Flowers returned an interception for a score.

Culwell stepped in a quarterback this season and has completed 195-of-276 passes for 3,332 yards with 44 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Hufstedler, now a senior, has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons after just missing the milestone as a sophomore. He has 1,682 yards and 28 touchdowns on 137 carries for the season and 4,514 yards and 75 TDs for his career.

Kelton has slid into the lead receiving role with 52 receptions for 1,043 yards and 12 touchdowns while another senior, Reagan Cochran, is at 45 catches for 747 yards and 12 TDs.

Gary Anderson is third at 23 catches for 408 yards and six TDs and Hufstedler is also an option out of the backfield with 27 receptions for 360 yards and three scores.

Ethan Jackson and Colton Cooper lead a defensive unit that has not allowed more than two touchdowns in its last 11 games and only Iowa Park and West Texas, which scored 26 in the season-opener, have breached the 20-point barrier. The Wildcats are averaging an interception — Anderson has four — and a fumble recovery per game. Canadian has notched 63 sacks with Cooper posting a team-best 14.

“Their offense is still the same. This year’s quarterback isn’t as involved in the running attack as much as last year. It’s a little bit different attack,” Fieszel said. “With Hayze Hufstedler as the main runner and a senior, they’ve put more of the load on him.”

State semifinals

Class 3A Division II

What: Gunter vs. Canadian

When: 4 p.m. Friday

Where: Abilene Christian University