State-ranked Gilmer and PG open district play
By Bill Owney
GILMER – It’s Goliath vs. David’s grown-up brothers.
Three years ago, Pleasant Grove’s Josh Gibson took the helm of a program that won but five games in three prior starts. He has led the Hawks to back-to-back-to-back playoff appearances and this year has them off to a 5-0 start and ranked as high as No. 4 in some statewide polls.
But standing in the way of PG’s grab for a brass ring, or even a district title, are the storied Gilmer Buckeyes (4-1). So far in this tale, the giant keeps winning.
Two years ago, Gilmer knocked of The Grove by four points in a first-round playoff tilt. Last year, Gilmer came into Hawk Stadium and dropped PG 31-10 as a young Hawk squad stumbled to a 1-5 start, before turning the corner and ripping off five straight, including bi-district and area championships.
Pleasant Grove’s win streak ended with a four-point loss to defending state champion Celina in the quarterfinals. The following week, Gilmer whacked Celina, 43-17 before moving on to 42-35 loss to Sweetwater in the championship game, foiling the Buckeyes’ dream of a fourth state title in 18 years.
It’s much too early to call this week’s 4A-2 DII district opener the battle for the crown. Good times abound. The six teams are a combined 26-9 and only Gladewater comes into district play with a losing record.
In a battle to two top-10 teams, both coaches are playing it close to the vest, issuing enough coach speak to fill a text book on how to avoid landing on an opponent’s bulletin board.
Still, a quiet confidence makes it clear Gibson likes his hand.
“We’re going to reap what we sew,” he said. “This is our first senior class. These kids were here as freshmen and this is the final product of what we have been working on since Day 1. These kids bought into the formula, they follow the steps. Their work ethic is second to none; it’s the hardest working group I’ve even been around.”
Unselfishness is a key attribute of this team’s success. Gibson’s Wing-T offense distributes the ball to playmakers all over the field – there is no featured back or receiver.
That formula has produced prolific results this season, racking up 2,071 yards, 1,485 of those on the ground. The Hawks are averaging 45.8 points and 414.2 yards per game, 297 rushing and 117 passing.
Sophomore QB Ben Harmon, 6-1, 180, is the triggerman, throwing for 8 TDs and 2 interceptions, but the seniors are racking up the big numbers.
Xavier Benson, 6-3, 200, who is headed to Texas Tech as a linebacker, has contributed 94 yards and a TD from the tight end spot.
On defense, Benson has been a consistently disruptive force at OLB, with 31 tackles, four for loss, two sacks, four QB pressures, a forced fumble, two recoveries and a blocked kick. Fellow senior linebacker Caleb Portia has chipped in 53 tackles – 10.6 per game – one for loss, three QB pressures and a forced fumble.
Senior RB TJ Cole, 6-0, 200, has rushed for 576 yards and seven TDs on 80 carries and added 89 yards and another score on six catches.
Senior wideout Carson Cox, a Tulsa baseball signee, provides a deep threat, averaging 30.2 yards and three TDs on eight catches.
Senior RB/DB Chauncey Martin has been a force on both sides of the ball, rushing for 176 yards and three TDs, and coming up with 27 tackles, 1 for loss, a pair of interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Underclassmen make important contributions, too. Sophomore RB Bruce Garrett, 5-10, 178, has run for 277 yards and five TDs and junior DB Caleb Hemphill, 6-0, 177, has 34 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
“We have some talent,” Gibson said. “We have six or seven players who are headed to Division-II or better scholarships. If we play to our potential we can play with anybody.
“We’re talented enough to beat Gilmer, and they’re talented enough to beat us.”
Gilmer continues to put up big numbers in the spread offense that Jeff Traylor introduced 18 years ago, when he brought Gilmer out of the shadows and built one of Texas’ elite programs. Traylor left two years ago and is now the assistant head coach at SMU. His successor was his offensive coordinator, Matt Turner, who seems to have done a decent job – 27-3 and back-to-back state championship game appearances.
This year, the Buckeyes are averaging 50.6 points and 576 yards per game – 244 rushing and 332 passing.
Though the two offenses may appear mirror opposites – Gilmer averages 68 plays per game passing first, and PG 53 running first – they share a common secret: many hands touch the ball.
Senior quarterback Aaron “Poppy” Brown, 5-9, 180, has thrown for 1,649 yards and 15 TDs but has tossed eight interceptions. Senior wideouts Red Jones and Morgan Lusty have combined for 942 yards and nine TDs. Junior RB Brannon Webb, 5-10, 175, has 423 yards and six TDs on 49 carries.
Senior linebackers Dain Goudarzi and Gary Orr have 89 tackles at the midseason point.
This fall, the Buckeyes have made a living on their offense. The defense is surrendering 35.6 points a game. In the season opener, they edged Liberty-Eylau, 58-57, the two teams’ only common opponent. PG whacked the Leopards two weeks ago, 51-14.
Common opponent scores are rarely indicative of what might occur in a big game. This may be more salient: PG Defensive Coordinator Brandon Easterly’s group is surrendering but 12 points a game and has recovered nine fumbles and snagged five interceptions, an average of 2.8 turnovers a game.
“A lot of that comes from guys playing hard, rallying to the ball and being at the right place at the right time,” Easterly said.
How well Turner’s unstoppable force does against Easterly’s immovable object may be a key to the game.
Talk with the players and it is clear the Hawks respect Gilmer, but are no longer intimidated by the Buckeyes.
That esteem goes all the way to the top.
“Over the past 18 years, nobody’s done a better job consistently than Gilmer,” said Gibson. “They love their kids and get them to play hard. Gilmer is Gilmer. They do things right and they have for a long time.”
Turner returned the favor.
“Josh Gibson does a tremendous job,” the Gilmer coach said. “He has a great coaching staff and great kids. We have a tremendous respect for them.”
- Gilmer enters the game off a bye week following a 48-28 loss to Carthage, ranked No. 1 in 4A-Div I in all polls. The Buckeyes have not lost two regular-season games in seven years.
- PG is one win from equaling its total in each of the previous three years. By advancing to the third round of the playoffs in 2016, PG tied a school record set in 2001, 2007 and 2009. In its 33 years of existence, Pleasant Grove has won three district championships.