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photos by Kevin Cook

Hawks take defending champs,

bring another trophy to title town

 

ARLINGTON, Texas – Dreams do come true, especially when invested with heart and soul.

Caleb Portia

Pleasant Grove capped a perfect season with its first football championship to make Texarkana, Texas, the first city in the state with three high schools to win championships in both baseball and football.

To get there, the Hawks put down, and then put away the reigning big boy on the block, two-time defending champion West Orange-Stark, winner of 40 straight.

Pleasant Grove became the best by beating the best. Rarely is that easy and, despite the sound of the 41-21 final score, on Friday it wasn’t.

 

TJ Cole

Thanks to an unyielding defense and opportunistic offense, Pleasant Grove seemed to be cruising with a 28-6 lead early in the fourth quarter. That’s when the Mustangs reminded the 20,851 present — more from PG — why they were champs. Quarterback Chaka Watson led his team downfield for two quick strikes to close it to 28-21 with 4:35 to play.

Pleasant Grove had led for all but 10 seconds of the game, but in that moment, a wisp of doubt floated over the Hawk side of the AT &T Stadium.

PG answered with an offensive drive that killed most of the clock, thanks in part to a third-and-five, 29-yard completion from Ben Harmon to Xavier Benson, but the drive fizzled at the Mustangs 22.

That put the game in the hands of the defense. The Hawk Headhunters needed to raise their game one more level to defend the lead, and Benson did. Watson dropped back with 28 seconds left and Benson, lined up at defensive end, saw what was coming, a pass in the flat to the wideout, a play the Mustangs had twice used for big gains.

Senior wideout Carson Cox and sophomore quarterback Ben Harmon celebrate in the final moments of a state championship win. Photo by Kevin Cook

“I saw it and I dropped back in coverage. When he threw it, I jumped the route,” said the Texas Tech commit, who also caught three passes for 85 yards. “I took it to the house.”

Benson wasn’t even the MVP. Those honors went to Caleb Portia on defense and TJ Cole on offense.

As Benson joyfully sprinted across the goal line with 15 seconds to play, any doubt about the identity of the 2017 Class 4A, DII Texas football champion left the building

The refs probably should have called a TKO right there; instead, Aaron Harmon, one three Harmon brothers in the game, put the champ on the mat for good with a 44-yard interception TD as time expired.

Chauncy Martin drags a trio of defenders on a run for a first down. Kevin Cook Photo.

Heart and soul

A 16-0 state championship season seemed a fitting ending for a group of seniors, including 16 starters, who set it as their goal the first day they stepped on campus.

“I’m just extremely proud of these guys, and that’s what it’s all about is these guys,” Pleasant Grove coach Josh Gibson said. “Our theme is heart and soul and they put their heart and soul into the program.”

“It was a special I group. I knew it when I took the job,” Gibson said. “Going 8-0 in middle school doesn’t mean you’re going to get a state championship. The first day on the job I said, ‘Guys, if you put your heart and soul into it, we can be playing for a state title.’ The coolest thing about these guys is that they did everything we asked them to do.

“They upped the ante. I’m a coach’s kid, I’ve been around this for a long time and I’ve never seen a group of kids put more time into each other, relationally, at the high school level or at the college level. They’re special.”

Caleb Hemphill hauls down Justin Sibley for a loss in the third quarter., Photo by Kevin Cook

Defensive slugfest

The West Orange-Stark defense, the “Chain Gang,” weavers of four shutouts, was as tough as its reputation and suffocated Pleasant Grove’s Wing-T offense, which came in averaging more than 300 yards per game. It held PG to 111 yards on the ground. The Hawk Headhunters returned the favor, limiting the Mustangs to 43 yards on rushing.

Ryan Pickleman

“They (the Mustangs) have been unbelievable this whole year, but we felt like we were one of the best defenses in the state of Texas,” Gibson said. ”We know West-Orange Stark has a ton of credibility. They play so well. They do it every year. To shut them down is something these guys believed they could do and talked about all week, not necessarily wanting to make a statement but just to get the ‘W.’ Our defense has been unbelievable this year and helped us a great deal today.”

Landon Jackson reacts after sacking West Orange-Stark quarterback Chaka Watson

Coming into the game, PG defensive coordinator Brandon Easterly had a clever strategy, tackle the quarterback. A week earlier, Watson ran for 235 yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder. Against PG, he netted nine yards on 13 carries

Though he eventually compiled 240 yards passing, throwing the ball was against the Hawk secondary was no fun, either. Of all Watson’s memories of this game, the second quarter is likely to stand out.

Nearly every time he dropped back, he was rocked – by Nick Gavriel, by Austin Toler, and by Landon Jackson – and the hits kept coming. Jackson and senior middle linebacker Caleb Porchia combined for three sacks. Cornerback Ryan Pickleman nearly caused an interception when he flew in on a blitz and barreled into Watson as he threw.

Portia, who led all tacklers with seven solo tackles, four assists and two tackles for loss, was the game’s defensive MVP. Pickleman finished with six tackles. The Fat Boys Gang, the nickname the defensive line chose for itself, was credited with 14 stops.

Bruce Garrett scores early in the fourth quarter to help PG build a 28-6 lead. Photo by Kevin Cook

Offensive opportunities

While the running game clawed and scratched for traction, the Hawks struck through the air. Sophomore quarterback Ben Harmon didn’t throw often, but many of the nine of 14 passes he completed were daggers to the heart, digging the Hawks out a hole or flipping the field. He threw for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 75-yarder to Cole on the first play from scrimmage.

The throw to the fullback was the first of the season, a wrinkle put in by Gibson and his brother, offensive coordinator Justin Gibson, just for the championship game.

TJ Cole dives into the end zone to make it 21-6 just before halftime.

“We knew they would be all up in the box,” Josh Gibson said. “I’ve said it a thousand times. TJ is a fullback for us, but he’s one of the best slot receivers I’ve ever seen.”

It worked. Harmon took the snap, stepped back three steps and fired the ball at Cole, who was running free down the middle, five yards behind the safeties. The senior sprinted alone and untouched into the end zone to give the Hawks a 7-0 lead just 10 seconds into the contest.

“My main thought at that point was, ‘don’t get caught,’” said Cole, also the game’s leading rusher for 89 yards and a TD on 22 carries.

The Mustangs tightened the contest midway through the first quarter with a 7-play, 49-yard drive that ended with Kayven Cooper scoring from three yards out on a counter play up the middle. Watson kept the drive alive on a fourth-and-four with a 14-yard completion to Blake Robinson, who stepped out at the three.

Chad Dallas’ kick was a knuckle ball that went 10 yards right of the goal post, and the Hawks still led, 7-6, with 5:22 remaining in the first quarter. That may have been an omen: WO-S never did get the lead

Pleasant Grove answered with a 10-play, 75-yard drive. A key play came on a third-and-10 at the Hawk  48. Harmon hit senior Carson Cox in the left flat for 18 yards and a first down at the Mustang 34. On the next play, Harmon again found Cole running free at the 23. The big back sprinted to the pylon for the score.

Dillon Williams’ kick split the uprights to give PG a 14-6 lead at the end of one.

Xavier Benson hauls in a pass . Photo by Kevin Cook

With 3:36 left in the half, Chauncey Martin took in a punt at the 31 and dashed and darted to the Hawk 48. Five plays later, the Hawks were in the end zone again.

The big play was a second-and-15 toss into the right flat to Benson who broke a tackle and sprinted down the sideline for a 37-yard gain to the Mustang 9. Two plays later, Cole swept around right end and dove over a tackler at the two to his third score of the half to make it 21-6.

Neither team scored in the third quarter. The Mustangs took the opening kickoff and marched from their 35 to the PG 26, where the Hawks bowed up. On fourth-and-three, Jackson broke through and pressured Watson, forcing an interception.

West Orange-Stark’s next possession came to a quick end, thanks to a sack by Jackson.

At the end of the third quarter, PG began a nine-play, 70-yard drive the finished with a four-yard sweep around the left side by Bruce Garrett to make it 28-6 with 10:02 left in the game.

The defending champs pulled themselves off the canvas for two, fourth-quarter touchdowns. Watson hit Jarron Morris on a deep post route for a 44-yard score.

After the Chain Gang forced a three-and-out, Watson needed a little more than two minutes to find the end zone again. A 22-yard pass to Cooper set up a 3-yard TD toss to Jay’Zn Robinson.

Pleasant Grove ran off 11 plays to reach the WO-S 22, where a 39-yard field goal try fell a yard short. The drive killed all but 28 seconds off the clock.

Pleasant Grove 14 7 0 20 41
West Orange-Stark 6 0 0 15 21

 

Pleasant Grove West Orange-Stark
13 First Downs 11
41-111 Rush-Yards 23-43
9-14-0 — 248 PC-PA-I — Yards 18-32-3 — 240
359 Net Offense 283
2-0 Fumbles-Lost 1-0
6-37.5 Punts-Average 5-43.2
4-22 Penalties-Yards 4-32
The Pleasant Grove Showstoppers show they are in the spirit of season during Saturday’s state championship game at AT&T Stadium.
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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.