Gunter settles for being the state runner-up to Franklin

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Gunter's Brayden Hinton gets upended just short of the end zone during the Class 3A Division II state championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

ARLINGTON — The Tigers took the body blows that come with playing in a title game, but Gunter was giving as good as it got, answering each touchdown by the Franklin Lions with one of its own.

Through three quarters the two best teams in the state were on equal footing, but Franklin came up with a couple of big plays on both sides of the ball in the final 12 minutes to come away with a 49-35 victory over Gunter and win the Class 3A Division II state championship in front of 11,700 at AT&T Stadium.

It was the first title for Franklin (16-0), which was the runner-up last season when it lost to Canadian by a point.

Gunter (15-1) was trying for its third title in six seasons but couldn’t keep matching the Lions after going to the fourth quarter tied at 35. The Tigers’ six-year stretch now has an 88-6 record with two titles, two runner-up finishes and two semifinal appearances.

“Our kids, they’re fighters. There’s no doubt about that,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “I was really, really proud of them going back and forth with them. We took it down to the fourth quarter. Two really good football teams going at it. Came up a little short.”

Cole Lemons caught three passes for 37 yards and two TDs, Ethan Sloan had four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown to go with 10 carries for 46 yards and a TD, Brayden Hinton finished with 12 carries for 53 yards and a score and Hudson Graham was 8-of-16 passing for 149 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions and ran 14 times for 57 yards for Gunter.

“I’m really proud that we got here,” Graham said. “I’m not proud of the way it ended but we kept fighting.”

Malcolm Murphy had 15 carries for 280 yards and four touchdowns and was named the Offensive Player of the Game, Bryson Washington finished with 17 carries for 165 yards and three TDs, Bobby Washington totaled 96 yards on 18 carries and Colby Smith was named the Defensive Player of the Game for Franklin, which rolled up 523 yards, all on 56 carries, to set the Class 3A state title game record for rushing yards in a game.

“They were hurting us with some of their cutbacks,” Fieszel said. “They were hurting us all over. On their outside stuff we didn’t force it inside enough.”

The teams traded turnovers to open the third quarter and then traded touchdowns the rest of the frame.

Lane Dophied recovered a fumble he forced on Franklin’s opening drive of the second half to give Gunter prime field position at the Lions 36. But the Tigers managed just five yards before going for it on fourth down and Smith came up with an interception.

On the first play of the ensuing Franklin drive, Bryson Washington took a toss 66 yards to give the Lions a 28-20 lead.

But Gunter tied the game two minutes later when Graham faked a toss left, rolled right and hit Sloan over the middle for a 20-yard TD pass. Sloan ran in the conversion to knot the score.

Franklin continued to come through with big plays however. The Tigers couldn’t get off the field on fourth-and-four just inside Gunter territory and Murphy had a 34-yard touchdown run on the next snap.

Sloan hauled in a 36-yard pass early on the next drive to just outside the red zone and Hinton capped that possession with a four-yard run and make it 35-all heading to the fourth quarter.

The Lions were penalized on the extra point, allowing Gunter to kick off from the Franklin 45. Instead of an onside attempt, Logan Hubbard booted the ball through the end zone.

“I wanted to. I felt like we are still going back and forth. I didn’t want one of their guys to get their hands on it and turn it into something,” Fieszel said. “Let’s play defense and make a stop — let them start at the 25.”

On the first play of the final frame, Murphy got a toss to the right and cut back inside on the way to a 61-yard touchdown.

For the first time, Gunter didn’t have an answer. The Tigers picked up a first down and were just short of midfield when they punted with 9:48 left.

Murphy had an 86-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage, sneaking through a hole when it looked like he was bottled up.

The two-TD margin ended up being enough. An interception by Murphy ended Gunter’s first attempt to get within a score and the Tigers had some life when Nick Bullard recovered a fumble at the Gunter 34. But Murphy had his fingerprints all over this outcome and his second interception with 3:08 left allowed the Lions to run out the clock.

The difference on the scoreboard in the first half was an extra point try by Hubbard that failed with 4:42 remaining in the second quarter when Gunter was about to tie the score.

Instead, after Lemons hauled in a five-yard touchdown catch going right to left where he was wide open on the first ‘O’ in Cowboys, the Tigers still trailed 21-20.

Both teams had touchdowns called back on their final possessions — Murphy raced 60 yards but a penalty on a down-field block brought it back and led to a punt that set up Gunter at its 40-yard line with 1:21 remaining.

The Tigers faced fourth down with just seconds on the clock when Graham bought time for a throw deep to the right side of the field. Lemons came down with the catch over two defenders at the 15 and walked in for a score but an illegal shift nullified the TD and the half ended with Franklin holding the one-point advantage.

Gunter never led in the first half but had an answer every time Franklin got on the board.

The Lions opened the scoring with Murphy’s 59-yard run on the Franklin’s third play from scrimmage with 9:22 showing in the first quarter.

The Tigers followed with a five-play scoring drive. Sloan cut the field in half with his run from the 50 and then Lemons went over a defender on the right side, falling backward into the end zone to tie the game barely a minute after Gunter had fallen behind.

“He makes my job easy,” Graham said about the 25-yard TD pass. “I can put it within five yards of him and he’ll come down with it.”

Bryson Washington got to the outside on an 18-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter to put Franklin back in front.

But Sloan capped the ensuing possession with a one-yard TD plunge less than a minute to the second quarter and the score was square at 14. Cannon Lemberg had a 30-yard catch early in the drive on third-and-eight to keep the series moving.

Franklin went back in front when it took advantage of a special teams miscue. Graham bobbled the snap on a punt and was slung down out of bounds at the Gunter 13. Bryson Washington scored from the one with 6:20 left in the half.