Canadian beats Gunter for title game berth

By Kale Steed
For the Herald Democrat
Gunter's Martin Garcia goes to tackle Canadian's Hayze Hufstedler during a Class 3A Division II state semifinal at Abilene Christian.

ABILENE — A spectacular season came to a disappointing end for Gunter as an early deficit and costly turnovers became the doom for the defending state champions in a 33-6 loss at the hands of Canadian in a Class 3A Division II state semifinal at Abilene Christian's Anthony Field Wildcats Stadium.

The Tigers (13-2), who were making a fifth straight appearance in the state semifinals, have gone 73-5 since 2016 and in that span have two titles, a runner-up finish and two semifinal appearances.

Both of those semifinal loss have come at the hands of Canadian (14-1) and this is the first season since 2015 Gunter has lost more than one game.

The Wildcats had lost three of the previous four semifinal meetings against the Tigers with their other victory coming in 2018 when they finished as the state runner-up. Canadian will compete for a fifth state championship and first since 2015 when it faces Franklin at 3 p.m. Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Hudson Graham completed 10-of-21 passes for 167 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Cole Lemons had the lone TD on a 45-yard reception in the fourth quarter and finished with four catches for 104 yards. Ashton Bennett led Gunter on the ground with 69 yards on 18 carries while Ethan Sloan totaled four catches for 45 yards and five carries for 21 yards.

Hayze Hufstedler had 32 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns to lead Canadian while Josh Culwell completed 14-of-21 passes for 176 yards with a TD and two interceptions and also ran 14 times for 102 yards and a score and Edgar Salazar made a pair of field goals.

Unlike the past meetings, Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel’s team played uncharacteristic football being plagued by four turnovers. Gunter was held to 83 yards in the first half and 267 yards for the game. The Tigers devastating run game even took a hit with 100 yards rushing on 34 attempts.

Gunter started the game hot. Defensive back Cooper Wade picked off Culwell’s pass on the second play from scrimmage. But only four plays later running back Bennett was hit after an eight-yard gain by linebacker Hufstedler, fumbling the ball right into the hands of Wildcat defender George Abraham inside the Wildcats 25-yard line.

Following the Bennett fumble, Culwell led his team swiftly down the field, finding Hufstedler on a screen pass that went 27 yards to the Gunter two-yard line and Hufstedler ran in the touchdown on the next play, giving Canadian a 7-0 lead that the Wildcats held at the end of the first quarter.

On Canadian’s next possession, Culwell and the speedy offense kept Gunter on its toes with great balance. That led to Culwell finding Twister Kelton on a slip screen and he went 17 yards to pay dirt for a 13-0 Wildcats advantage after the PAT was blocked less than a minute into the second quarter.

Canadian held control the rest of the way never giving the Tigers momentum, and forcing the disciplined team into mistakes.

Culwell scored on a five-yard run in the middle of the second quarter and Salazar booted a 27-yard field goal as the first half expired to give the Wildcats a 23-o lead at half-time.

Gunter opened the second half with a strong drive that reached the red zone but the series stalled there and the Tigers opted for a field goal try that failed in the middle of the third quarter.

Canadian then went the other way before the Tigers were able to come up with a stop near the end zone and the Wildcats settled for a 20-yard field goal from Salazar for the only points of the frame and a 26-0 advantage heading to the fourth quarter.

Hufstedler scored on a 19-yard run with 8:43 remaining to extend the lead to 33-0.

Gunter avoided the shutout with Graham connected with Lemons down the right sideline on a 45-yard touchdown pass with 7:44 left in the contest.

State semifinals

Class 3A Division II

Canadian                33

Gunter                      6