15-0, and one more to go; Pleasant Grove in championship game

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Hawk players and cheerleaders celebrate school's first-ever state semifinal victory
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Hawks roll, 45-14; championship game next

FRISCO, Texas – To be the best, you must beat the best, and Pleasant Grove will get its shot.

A real shot; indeed, anyone who saw the Hawk Headhunters deconstruct the high-flying Graham Steers, 45-14,  at The Star Thursday night will wonder if PG should be the favorite when it ventures into AT&T Stadium next Friday afternoon for a state championship showdown with the winner of Friday’s game between West Orange-Stark and Wimberly.

Photo by KEVIN COOK
Bruce Garrett leaps the pile to pick up a first down. He rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns

For the second week in a row, Pleasant Grove dominated a highly regarded opponent by controlling the line of scrimmage, playing tenacious man-to-man defense and having its way on offense, running through gaping holes for 351 yards and five touchdowns. Both squads came in with glittering 14-0 records, but it was obvious from the opening moments that one team was more formidable than the other.

In the first half, the Hawks held Graham’s offense, which averaged nearly 53 points a game, to net 23 yards while racing out to a 28-0 lead. The Steers first found the end zone midway through the third quarter, after Pleasant Grove built its lead to 35-0.

“We’re going to state!” senior lineman Austin Toler barked to his teammates as he came off the field, yielding to a sub midway through the fourth quarter. He was met with howls and huffs of hearty agreement.

It looked that way on the other side of the field, too.

“Pleasant Grove presents such a difficult combination,” said Graham coach Kenny Davidson. “They are athletic, exceptionally disciplined and they play really tough man defense. They have a great offensive attack, with so many athletes to run the ball, a great line, and the way they get to the line of scrimmage so fast.

“They really don’t have many weaknesses.”

Ferocious defense, punishing offense

“We played a great football game against a great team and great program,” said Pleasant Grove coach Josh Gibson. “On offense, we have 11 positions playing fast and physical. I think we are one of the best offenses in the state. Our kids are unselfish, and that’s why there are so many playmakers.”

Photo by KEVIN COOK
Chauncey Martin returns a first-quarter punt 23 yards to set the Hawks up for their second score.

That was certainly the case in this game. With star tailback Chauncey Martin nursing a minor injury, the Hawks got another great game from TJ Cole, who ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Bruce Garrett came up with a big night, going for 137 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.

Garrett’s second touchdown was a backbreaker.

Down 28-0, the Steers connected on a 45-yard pass from Tucker Horn to Cameron Parker for a first down at the Hawk 10.

On first down, Horn was harassed and forced to throw the ball away. On second down, a linebacker knocked down a ball aimed at a receiver on a crossing route at the goal line. On third down, Luke Harmon dove in front of a receiver and batted the ball away in the end zone.

On fourth down, Horn, who has thrown for 4,300 yards and 54 touchdowns this year, lofted a perfect fade pass into the corner of the end zone. Ryan Pickleman went high in the air to break up the play and force the Steers to turn the ball over on downs.

Two plays later, Garrett turned the left corner on a jet sweep and sprinted away from the defense for an 85-yard score that made it 35-0.

From somewhere, deep under the crowded Pleasant Grove stands, a fat lady was heard singing warm-up scales.

Fast start

The sequence was typical of how the defense played all night. The stat boxes will show Horn finished the night with 236 passing yards, but most of those came long after the outcome was settled and backups were on the field. In the first half, he completed three of nine passes for 39 yards. He had an interception and was sacked three times as the Steers failed to cross the midfield stripe in the first two quarters.

“I think we have the best defense in the state,” Gibson said. “Our defensive coaches are coming up with great game plans and the kids are playing fast, smart and physical. They have been amazing.”

The defense wasted no time announcing its presence.

The Steers started their first drive at the 18. After a 2-yard gain on first down, Horn dropped back and, under pressure, overthrew his receiver. On third down, he dropped back and was rocked by inside linebacker Caleb Portia.

Photo by KEVIN COOK
Caleb Portia, 5, introduces himself to Graham quarterback Tucker Horn on the third play of the game. Xavier Benson, 3, closes in.

A few minutes later, Garret took a Jet sweep around the left side from 15 yards out to make it 7-0 midway through the first quarter.

Graham’s second possession ended just as quickly when Tyler Allen blasted through for a sack.

A short punt and a 23-yard punt return by Chauncey Martin, who broke three tackles, put the Hawks in business at the Steer 36. Five plays later, Cole barreled through the middle of the defense, running over a linebacker and through a defensive back to make it 14-0.

The first quarter ended with a Nick Gavriel sack of Horn for a 7-yard loss. The second quarter began with Xavier Benson blowing up a flanker reverse for a 14-yard loss.

Given a short field, the Hawk offense put together a nine-play, 45-yard drive. Quarterback Ben Harmon kept it alive on a third-and-16 play by hitting Cole with a screen pass, which the senior fullback turned into a 24-yard pickup to the Steer 22.

Two plays later, Cole burst through a big hole at right tackle for a 17-yard score.

Another sack, this time by linebacker Jacob Barbour, soon put the Hawks near midfield. On third-and-12 from the Graham 47, the Steers sent their left cornerback on a blitz. Harmon saw it coming, so did senior wideout Carson Cox, who took off on a go route.

Harmon hit Cox in stride, the safety was late getting over, and just like that, it was 28-0 when the teams headed to the locker rooms.

“That was the best pass Ben has thrown all year,” said quarterbacks coach Riley Fincher. “It was sweet – right on the money.”

It was 35-7 after three. PG added 10 points in the fourth quarter, thanks to a 26-yard field goal by Dillon Williams and a one-yard blast over guard by James Wiggins, his third carry on a 10-play, 69-yard drive.

Horn drove his team on a 71-yard, eight-play drive in the final 1:41.

Defensive coordinator Brandon Easterly noted that the secondary continued to play well, even after Pickleman and Tyler Kelly went down with injuries. Sophomore Riley Durmon and Luke Harmon – one of Ben’s big brothers – contributed key plays.

“That was huge,” Easterly said. “That’s a credit to coaches Andy Allen and Dwight McCowan, who make sure everyone gets reps in practice.”

One to go

Although a state title is a dream these players have shared, and have worked toward for years, the state semifinal win still left some a little speechless.

Pleasant Grove players and coaches celebrate receiving the school’s first state semifinal championship trophy.

“It’s awesome. It’s something I can’t explain,” said senior lineman Drake Fowler. “We’ve been working for this since seventh grade.”

“We just had to trust in ourselves,” said Cole. “We believe in each other and in the goals set for us by the coach when we were freshmen.”

Gibson, the man who four years ago took over a team that had won a total of five games in three years and has guided it to four straight playoff appearances, is the one who set that vision. He is so passionate about his players and coaches that he almost tears up, and frequently chokes up, when discussing them.

He said he has no trouble believing his team will be ready for a state championship game.

“Monday will give us another chance to get better,” he said. “We get another week together.

“I’m so proud of our program,” Gibson said. “Our kids and our coaches are 15-0 and going to state. However, this season is so much more than that. This is a culmination of four years of hard work and belief. We’ve believed this was our destiny and now we must take one more step. Heart and soul – it’s got us this far.”

Graham 0 0 7 7 14
Pleasant Grove 14 14 7 10 45

 

Graham   Pleasant Grove
21 First Downs 23
15-(-12) Rush-Yards 54-351
21-38-1 — 226 PC-PA-PI-Yds 2-6-0 — 71
214 Net Offense 422
0-0 Fumbles-Lost 0-0
6-45 Penalties-Yards 5-35
4-34.0 Punts-Avg 2-44.0
Hawk players and cheerleaders celebrate school’s first-ever state semifinal victory
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A veteran journalist and educator, Bill Owney is a 1980 graduate of the University of Florida. Writing awards include APME honors for investigative reporting, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Award for public service reporting and numerous awards for editorial, column and news writing. He served as publisher of the Atlanta Citizens Journal and Pittsburg Gazette when each paper won sweepstakes awards from the Texas Press and North and East Texas Press Associations. He spent 15 years as a public school teacher and is an adjunct professor of English at Texarkana College.

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