ABILENE- Canadian and Gunter added another historic chapter to what’s been one of the best Texas High School football playoff rivalries going on seven years Friday night at Wildcats Stadium.
As expected to many, this epic Class 3A Division II state semifinal between two of the best came down to the wire with Gunter putting together a game-winning drive that will be talked about for years to come in the final two minutes for a 21-20 victory leaving Canadian absolutely stunned.
The No. 1-ranked Tigers stay unbeaten at 14-0 overall and will play in the UIL Class 3A state championship for the fifth time in seven years when they battle Poth (14-1) at 3 p.m., on Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The Tigers will be vying for their third state title in program history and first since 2019.
Gunter’s offense sputtered most of the night against Canadian’s vaunted defensive front and aggressive linebackers. But down 20-14 with 1:52 remaining in the contest and no timeouts the Tigers put together a near flawless march to seal their trip back to state.
After a Wildcat punt, Gunter took over at their own 18-yard line. The Tigers had mustered just 28 yards passing until quarterback Walker Overman went to work. Overman, who was 10-of-20 for 102 yards with a pair of TDs on the night, went 7-for-11 for 64 yards on the final series chipping away with the help of receiver Cannon Lemberg. Lemberg had three big catches on the drive as Gunter marched down to the Canadian 10-yard line with 21 seconds to play. That’s when Overman found Ivy Hellman streaking wide open on a slant route for a 10-yard score tying the game, 20-20, with 17 seconds remaining. Preston Tarpley knocked through the ever so important extra-point and the Tigers escaped with the win.
“We had a plan for the final two minutes and we executed,” said Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel, who is now 193-30 in 16 seasons at the helm. “Canadian had done a great job of shutting us down. We had trouble moving the ball but when it counted, we worked the sideline and moved down the field and make plays.”
Canadian head coach Chris Koetting echoed Fieszel’s comment on the final drive.
“We felt like we had the game in hand,” Koetting said. “Then it just fell apart. We felt like we had their backs against the wall, and it’d be hard for them to move the ball. But give them credit. They did an amazing job of getting first downs, getting out of bounds and making big plays.”
Hellman had six carries for 54 yards and a rushing TD on top of his game-winning score. Lemberg totaled six catches for 69 yards and a touchdown.
In a hard-fought matchup where every point counted, Canadian had taken a 20-14 lead with 6:09 remaining when quarterback Camren Cavalier capped off a huge 11-play, 76-yard drive with his third rushing TD of the ballgame on a 2-yard run. However, the extra-point was near blocked as Emiliano Hernandez kicked it into the turf making it a six-point 20-14 advantage instead of a seven-point lead. That was a part of two plays that will haunt the Wildcats. On Gunter’s final drive Overman threw a 40-yard-deep ball toward the end zone that looked as if defensive back Preston Miller was going to intercept and end the ballgame. However, Jaxtyn Valenzuela and Miller crossed paths at the goal line and Miller was unable to haul in the INT allowing Gunter new life.
“That’s how football is sometimes,” Koetting said. “Things don’t always go your way. I think they got some good pressure, but I just hate it for Emiliano. He’s been a tremendous kicker for us all year and we wouldn’t be here without him. There were so many things we did we can look back on.”
Cavalier was gutsy going 17-of-25 for 168 yards and rushed the ball 33 times for 133 yards with three scores. Two of those touchdowns came in the first half that gave the Wildcats a 14-7 advantage. Though the Tigers offense churned out only 247 total yards, credit Gunter’s defense which limited the Canadian offense rendering the Wildcats scoreless throughout the second and third quarter that kept the Tigers in the game. The defensive unit also held Canadian under 36 points since a Week 2 loss to Bushland, and over 100 yards under the Wildcats season average for yards. Canadian came in averaging 486 yards per game and finished with just 356.
“We really settled down,” Fieszel said. “Canadian was moving fast in the first quarter. But we got them out of that tempo in the second quarter and settled in and got the pace of the game. We had big stops that kept us in it.”
Canadian (12-3 overall), a true blue blood staple of the Texas Panhandle, was the only Amarillo-area team left standing. The Wildcats, who were making an unprecedented eighth state semifinal appearance in nine years were hoping for a fifth state title showing since 2014. Despite falling short, Koetting doesn’t downplay how special this team was.
“This one hurts and it’s something we won’t forget for a longtime,” said Koetting, who is 165-24 in 13 seasons. “I can’t take anything away from our team though because we gave it our all. That was a dang good Gunter team we played. This is a painful loss, and we were so close but I’m so proud of our guys. We had a tremendous year and there’s nothing to be disappointed about. We started off with two losses early and didn’t look like we were going do much and here we are back in the semifinals. This is a great group.”
Gunter takes a 4-2 lead in this immaculate series that has been played six times over seven seasons. This 2022 meeting was eerily similar to the 2019 matchup when the Tigers beat the Wildcats holding Canadian on the goal line for a 27-20 win.