Gunter handles Holliday for sixth straight region crown
JUSTIN — The Tigers continued their stranglehold on the region for another season, fending off all challengers — some from their district, some with scores to settle, some new kids on the block — looking to unseat Gunter from a spot it has held since 2016 and doesn’t look ready to give up anytime soon.
The Holliday Eagles were the last team standing in the way of the Tigers returning to the state semifinals and their third time went much like the two previous match-ups in the Class 3A Division II Region II final. Gunter jumped to an early lead and held down Holliday for the 35-14 victory at Northwest ISD Stadium for another region championship.
“Six in a row is something to be very proud of,” Tigers head coach Jake Fieszel said. “It’s a huge reflection of our kids and their work ethic. We don’t talk about winning a region championship at the beginning of the year but we have a standard for how we do things and we feel the results will speak for themselves.”
Gunter (14-0) will face Lubbock Roosevelt, a 36-14 winner against Abernathy for the Region I title, in the state semifinals at 7 p.m. on Friday night at Abilene Christian University as the Tigers attempt to earn their fourth trip to the state title game. It is the first of the six semifinal appearances where the opponent will not be Canadian.
Holliday (13-1) was trying to reach the state semifinals for the first time since 1996 but once again struggled to score against the Tigers, who have beaten the Eagles in the region final three times in the past four seasons. The 14 points were the most in these three meetings and while Holliday had three big plays which picked up 211 yards and helped lead to both touchdowns, the Eagles managed just 49 yards on the other 35 snaps.
Hudson Graham had 22 carries for 129 yards and two touchdowns and was 9-of-11 passing for 143 yards and a TD while Ashton Bennett added 13 carries for 62 yards and two scores and Cannon Lemberg had four catches for 61 yards and a TD for Gunter, which ran 69 times for 339 yards.
Jaxx Johnson had seven carries for 94 yards and a touchdown while Austin Jones ran six times for 65 yards and a score and also had a 76-yard catch for Holliday.
As Holliday was struggling to string together drives — the Eagles finished with only four first downs — Gunter did enough to maintain a comfortable cushion despite being held under 41 points for just the second time this season.
“We didn’t want to negate the lead we had,” Fieszel said. “We felt that our defense was playing really well. Our special teams was on point. All that adds up.”
The Eagles had a chance to get off the field in the middle of the third quarter but Graham’s keeper on fourth-and-one busted free for a 27-yard touchdown run and a 28-0 advantage.
“Teams that are championship caliber have a great defense and a really good quarterback,” Fieszel said. “He’s a leader. He’s mentally and physically tough and goes out there and makes plays.”
Holliday got on the board late in the third quarter when Johnson slipped through the middle of the defense and went 80 yards for a touchdown.
But the Tigers followed with their final TD drive when Bennett bullied his way to the end zone on a 12-yard run with 9:36 left.
Jones had a 55-yard run down the right sideline before scoring from the one two plays later with 6:54 remaining in the game.
Gunter carried a 21-0 lead into half-time thanks to a pair of early touchdowns and some stout defense that allowed almost all of Holliday’s first-half yardage on one play.
The Eagles entered the break with 84 total yards but 76 of it was on a quick throw by Peyton Marchand over the middle to Jones, who was dragged down at the 10-yard line by Cole Lemons to save a touchdown late in the first quarter.
Holliday came away empty-handed when went for it on fourth-and-goal from the three but Marchand’s throw to the back left corner of the end zone fell incomplete.
Outside of Jones’ long catch-and-run, the Eagles managed just eight yards across 21 plays and their other six possessions were five three-and-outs and an interception on a deep shot that Lemons ran under with 48 seconds to go in the half.
Gunter, which had 195 of its 318 first-half yards on the ground, jumped out to a 14-0 lead after its first two possessions. After the Tigers stopped Holliday’s initial drive, they went 66 yards in eight plays with Bennett plunging through the line for a two-yard touchdown just over three minutes into the game.
Despite a 53-yard punt by Marchand setting Gunter up at its 20 for the second series by the Tigers, Graham ended that possession with a weaving 31-yard keeper to reach the end zone with 5:44 left in the first quarter.
Lemons had a 29-yard catch on third-and-nine to keep the drive going two plays before Graham faked the handoff to Saul Rodriguez and broke loose for the touchdown.
The Tigers were about to go up 21-0 minutes later but a fumble on an option inside the Holliday 15-yard line was recovered by Marchand.
But the next time Gunter had the ball it used an impressive 12-play, 97-yard march to extend its advantage. Lemberg got a step on his defender along the left sideline and hauled in a 38-yard TD pass with 7:41 left in the half. Graham connected on nine straight passes with eight going in the direction of Lemberg and Lemons.
“We felt like we could take some deep shots,” Fieszel said.
Holliday managed to keep the deficit there when it forced a turnover on downs with just over four minutes remaining in the second quarter. Gunter faced fourth-and-four at the Holliday 30 but Graham was stopped after a two-yard gain.