In Pleasant Grove’s championship season, Cameron Wells made dozens of great plays that no one ever saw, and that’s how you know he made them.
He never never ran the ball, never caught a pass, was 11th in tackles, but he did lead the team in passes broken up with 19. If there was a way to measure how many times quarterbacks looked downfield to see their best receiver covered like moss blanketing the northern side of a tree, well, he might be in the Guinness Book of World Records.
That’s how one gets to be a second-team, all-state defensive back and a unanimous pick as first-team all-district pick by the coaches who knew him best.
“Cam put in a lot of work to become the best cover cornerback in the area,” said his position coach, Dwight McCowan. “He’s coachable, smart and has a great personality. You can tell he comes from a very good family.”
The son of Maranda and Stacy Wells, Cameron on Tuesday signed to play for Southern Nazarene University.
From the press box at AT&T Stadium during the state championship game, it was obvious West Orange-Stark had underestimated the capabilities of the Texarkana team’s smallish, but oh-so-quick secondary. In some ways the game turned on that.
Because the cornerbacks, Wells and Tyler Kelly, shut down the passing game with single coverage, PG was able to crowd the box and negate the Mustangs running game. A week earlier, quarterback Chaka Watson ran for 235 yards and two touchdowns. Against PG, he had 13 carries for five yards.
He completed 13 passes, but was picked off three times, once by Wells, who drew all the joy he can from his senior campaign.
“It was great, a dream come true,” he said. “Coach McCowan had a lot of confidence in me and that pushed me even harder.”
Another Cam Wells fan is head coach Josh Gibson.
“I think Cam is the best cornerback in our district,” said Gibson. “He’s one of the best leaders on our football team. He’s a hard worker, vocal and real key to team chemistry. He treats everybody in the locker room like they matter.”
The enduring question of Pleasant Grove’s 41-21 win over West Orange-Stark in the Class 4A, DII, state championship game is how much wider the final margin would have been larger and how much sooner would the game have been over with a healthy No. 21.
Through the first 13 wins of the season, senior tailback, cornerback and kick returner Chauncey Martin was a steady source of game-changing plays. He suffered a groin injury late in the quarterfinal against Melissa and was reduced to limited duty after that.
The explosiveness was gone – he had just five carries for five yards in the final – but because he was fundamentally sound on defense, he made smothered Mustang receivers and was in on a sack of Chaka Watson.
Then he limped off the field.
“Chauncey was a warrior,” said coach Josh Gibson. “He pushed through an injury in the final three playoff games. He knew what was on the line and he pushed his body through an injury to the limit to in those final games.”
It was not for nothing that district coaches voted Pleasant Grove’s starting tailback a first-team running back, the first-team punt returner, and a unanimous pick as first-team cornerback. He finished as the Hawks’ second-leading rusher, averaging 10.9 yards per rush for 1,039 yards and 15 TD’s. On defense he had 64 tackles and a pair of interception.
Before the injury, the Melissa game was a typical outing for Martin, the son of Michael and Tosha Martin. He rushed for 108 yards and the first two touchdowns of a 55-14 whipping. On PG’s first possession Martin hit the middle from the 34, ripped away from a defender at the 15 and danced into the end zone.
Thanks to a textbook block by wideout Carson Cox, Martin literally walked in from the 2 in the second quarter.
A week earlier, Against Celina, Martin was the key. He rushed for 116 yards and three TDs as the Hawks throttled the Bobcats, 33-14 to run their record to 13-0 and move into the state quarterfinals for only the second time in school history.
His performance was about more than numbers. He was the playmaker when Pleasant Grove most needed one.
Late in in the second quarter, with Pleasant Grove clinging to a 9-7 lead, Martin hit the corner around left end, juked one defender, stepped out of a tackle and somehow stayed in bounds as he sprinted down the sideline for a 67-yard TD run.
In the third quarter, with the Hawks facing third-and-10, Martin slashed through a gaping hole between right tackle and end and sprinted in from 26 yards out to make it 23-7.
The play is called 48 sweep. After the game ended Martin was, as is his custom, a role model of selflessness among a group of players who seemed always to put team success first.
“I had really good blocking,” he said.
In the area round against Aubrey Martin had scoring runs of 65 and 25 yards as the Hawks built a 28-7 halftime lead and never looked back.
In the Hawks’ first drive Martin exploded through the middle for 32 yards to set up a touchdown pass from Ben Harmon to Carson Cox all alone in the right corner of the end zone.
Martin later slashed through a gaping hole on the right side, cut back, juked a linebacker and sprinted 65 yards for the Hawks’ second score as time expired in the first quarter.
“Chauncey Martin is a playmaker,” Gibson said. “He can do it all: offense, defense, and special teams. As a running back, he has great balance, strength, and speed. He’s one of the best backs in East Texas. He’s a special person.”
Martin Tuesday signed with Texas A&M-Commerce, the reigning NCAA Division II champions.
Playing in coach Colby Carthel’s spread offense will be a test of whether the cream truly rises to the top. Last season the Lions carried more than 100 players on the roster. This week the school announced 52 signings.
Make no mistake, a football game is a fight, and a state championship game against a two-time defending champ and winner of 40 straight is certain to be a slugfest.
Though Pleasant Grove coach Josh Gibson often told anyone who would listen that his fullback, TJ Cole, could be a great slot receiver, that was one of the few positions he had not played for the Hawks, so one can excuse the West Orange-Stark coaching staff and secondary for a lack of awareness when Cole lined up there on the first play from scrimmage.
Ten seconds later, they knew.
Quarterback Ben Harmon took the snap, stepped back three steps and fired an eye-level line driveat 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.
Boom. Right to the chops.
“My main thought at that point was, ‘don’t get caught,’” said Cole, who wound up scoring three times and earning offensive MVP honors.
He scored twice more in the first half. He and Harmon teamed up for the exact same play, this time from 34 yards out to put Pleasant Grove up, 14-6 at the end of the first quarter. Just before the half, Cole went around the right side from nine yards out and dove over the defender into the end zone to make it 21-6.
He finished with 107 receiving yards and was the game’s leading rusher for 89 yards on 22 carries.
That’s impressive, but was just another day at the office for Cole, the leading rusher in Pleasant Grove’s share-the-load, run-first offense, which amassed 4,783 yards in the season. Cole was the leader of that pack, gaining 1,751 of those yards and 25 of the school’s 65 rushing touchdowns.
His on-field explosiveness stands in sharp contrast to the quiet, soft-spoken, thoughtful young man one meets off the field.
The son of Regina and Tony Cole, TJ Tuesday signed to play with Ouachita Baptist.
Coach Josh Gibson said Cole’s athleticism, work ethic and speed will help him excel at the next level.
“TJ Cole is a dude! He made the move from quarterback to running back and it has paid off,” Gibson said. “TJ is so athletic, he could play three different positions in college. His hands are phenomenal, he runs with great power and his vision is unreal.”
Joy pervades everything that Xavier Benson does, so it is fitting that he was the one to unleash it for Hawk nation.
In Pleasant Grove’s season of unparalleled achievement and unbelievable plays, one will always stick out in the memories of Hawk fans.
In the state championship game, 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 West Orange-Stark was the defending champion, winner of 40 straight. Quarterback Chaka Watson led his team downfield for two quick strikes to close it to 28-21 with 4:35 to play.
Pleasant Grove killed most of the time with an offense drive, keyed by a 29-yard completion from Ben Harmon to Benson, but the drive fizzled at the Mustangs 22 with less than 30 seconds to play.
On the next play, Benson lined up at defensive end. He immediately recognized what was coming, a pass in the flat to the wideout, a play the Mustangs had twice used for big gains.
“I saw it and I dropped back in coverage. When he threw it, I jumped the route,” said Benson, who on Tuesday signed a national letter of intent to play at Texas Tech. “I took it to the house.”
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 Cowboy Stadium.
Pleasant Grove fans have grown accustomed to big plays from Benson, the son of Jacqueline and Byron Benson. Two months earlier, after the Hawks snatched control of the district with a close win on a chilly Friday night in Gilmer, they almost saw it snatched away in Pittsburg.
The Pirates were down 11, but driving in the fourth quarter when Benson dropped back in coverage and leaped high in the air to make a one-handed interception. His return took the ball to the Pirate 24.
Two plays later running back Bruce Garrett took a counter to the right, cut up inside the contain and sprinted to the goal line to put the game out of reach.
Benson was a star on both side of the ball for Pleasant Grove. He hauled in 20 passes for 526 yards – that’s 26.3 yards per catch – for five touchdowns.
On defense, he was in on 106 tackles, second highest on the team. He had seven sacks, seven tackles for loss, nine quarterback pressures, broke up eight passes and intercepted a pair.
Benson was the District 7-4A coaches’ unanimous pick for MVP.
In the locker room, on the sideline, and especially on the field, Benson set the tone for the Hawks, who played exceptionally hard but also played with a calm that never seemed to be rattled by adversity.
“Xavier is one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached. He can do it all. One college coach told me, ‘Xavier’s a freak and he will play on Sundays,’” Head coach Josh Gibson said. “He’s a playmaker on offense, defense, and special teams. He’s played up on varsity since his 9th-grade year. We knew then we had something special with Xavier.
“No doubt, Xavier is a leader on this team. He sets the tone in practice and at games. I have so much belief in Xavier because of his work ethic.”
“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 of a state semifinal 45-14 drubbing of the Graham Steers.
He was met by his Pleasant Grove teammates with howls and huffs of hearty agreement.
The son of Jennifer Miller and Jericho Toler, he was part of a group of linemen who had played together since middle school, some longer, and grew into a dominant, physical crew that was central to Pleasant Grove’s 15-0, state championship season.
Toler, who signed Tuesday with Harding University, is a 6-foot, 300-pounder, a three-year soccer letterman who can bench press 355 lbs. and squat more than 500. That translates into a big, strong guy who can run.
“Austin Toler is probably the most athletic of the group,” Gibson said. “He is the most dominant defensive lineman in the district. Game after game, he makes a big impact.”
Though he only caught two passes – one for a critical first down against Aubrey, the other for a TD – he was such a devastating blocker on the edge who sprung Pleasant Grove’s backs for countless big gains that the District 7-4A coaches were unanimous in selecting him for first team honors.
He was also a unanimous pick to the first-team defensive line, which shut held Celina to just 53 yards on 26 carries and harassed and pummeled West Orange-Stark in the state championship game.
Toler finished with 84 tackles, 17 for loss, five sacks and 15 quarterback pressures.
Pleasant Grove coach Josh Gibson loves to brag on the talent in the trenches that helped propel his Hawks to a 16-0, state championship season.
A group known to demolish opponents on Friday nights and then pop out of bed before dawn for a day of hunting, they themselves the Fat Boy Gang.
“Most linemen are fun to coach,” he said. “They don’t care if we run or pass; they’re not going to get the ball,” Gibson said. “This group has a ton of fight in them. They’re driven. They’re selfless. They’re the type of young men I’d want my daughter to date, that I’d take for my own sons.
“The game is won or lost in the trenches, and this group likes to win.”
The leader of that pack is Nick Gavriel, who signed his letter to play at Arkansas Tech Tuesday. A first-team All Smoaky.com tackle who graded 95 percent throughout the season and amassed 88 pancake blocks.
Articulate and thoughtful, Gavriel tends to speak for the unit. He’s the one who came up the Fat Boy Gang nickname. At 6-foot-3 and 310 lbs., he usually can be found at tackle on both sides. He burst on the scene by earning district MVP honors his sophomore season. He is the son of Brittany Gavriel and Chris Gavriel.
“Nick Gavriel is the leader of the line,” Gibson said. “This will be the third year in a row that’s he’s a first-team all-district player. “On the film, it’s just pancake after pancake after pancake.”
The secret to his success, and the success of the Fat Boy Gang, is simple.
“Nobody outworks us. It’s that simple,” said Gavriel. “I don’t think anybody practices as hard as we do or plays with as much energy.”
“It’s awesome. It’s something I can’t explain,” said Pleasant Grove lineman Drake Fowler said through a wide grin, moments after Pleasant Grove polished off Graham, 45-14, to win a berth in the state championship game.
“We’ve been working for this since seventh grade.”
That hard work paid off in many ways: a 16-0 state championship season and for Fowler, a scholarship to Arkansas Tech.
Dominance in the line was a critical component of Pleasant Grove’s championship season. Time and again, opposing coaches’ post-game critique included a tip of the hat to a crew of seniors who played together since youth ball.
Fowler was, literally, in the middle of that. At 6-foot-6, 310 lbs., Fowler, who played tackle on offense and nose guard on defense, was the biggest of the bunch. He is the son of Bill and Lou Fowler.
When he wasn’t opening holes for PG’s potent running game, or protecting quarterback Ben Harmon, who threw for 2,038 yards and 28 passes, Fowler was giving the other offense headaches.
In a 33-14 beatdown of Celina, the team that knocked Pleasant Grove from the playoffs a year earlier, Fowler, Nick Gavriel, and Austin Toler smothered the Celina running game, holding the Bobcats to just 53 yards on 26 carries.
He confessed to enjoying the defensive side a little more. “My job is to destroy the center every play,” Fowler said with a sly grin.
A unanimous first-team, all-district defensive lineman, Fowler finished the season with 54 tackles, including three sacks and two tackles for losses.
“For his size, Drake is extremely athletic. He’ll be a force at the next level,” Coach Josh Gibson said. “He helped keep us loose. Everybody on the team laughed at what he said and did.”
On a wet and brutal night, Pleasant Grove’s boys and girls came away from Liberty-Eylau’s Radar Dome with a pair of closely fought, razor-thin losses.
A 51-50 loss dropped the Lady Hawks to second place and gave the District 14-4A championship to L-E, which improved to 17-11, 9-1 in district. Pleasant Grove dropped to 19-8 and 8-2.
Both teams will take on the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds from 13-4A Monday at Spring Hill High School in Longview. L-E plays Mabank (6-13, 3-5) at 6 p.m. PG takes on Van (18-15, 5-5) at 8.
The boys, who saw a chance for a tying basket with 47 seconds remaining, fell 67-63, dropping to 6-2 district and nursing a one-game lead with two games remaining, at home Tuesday against North Lamar and at Atlanta Friday.
L-E 51, Lady Hawks 50
Pleasant Grove dug out of a 17-3, first-quarter hole to turn the championship game in a hair-on-fire nail-biter that produced six lead changes in the second half.
Kalijah Johnson hit the first shot of the game, a three-pointer, to get the Lady Leopards off to picture-perfect shot, building an 8-0 lead before Pleasant Grove’s Madeline Haak finally drove the lane to put up PG’s first points nearly three minutes into the game.
Johnson would finish with three treys, and her teammates added three more, and L-E would need every one of them to hold off PG, which was missing a starter, Ashanti Levingston, with an injury. It was not until Abby Hine’s desperation, 40-foot heave at the buzzer bounced off the backboard that L-E’s title was secured.
“It was just who was going to have the last bucket,” said Pleasant Grove coach Jason Boston, who now has a week to prepare his team for the playoffs. “I like our chances. We have a week to get ready and we’ll be back in full force.”
The win was sweet for L-E coach Aquanetta Watson who saw her team enter district play with losing record.
“To come out and have a roller-coaster season and be district champs at the end – wow!” she said. “We played great team defense tonight.”
Led by seniors Monique Walker, who had 12 points, all of them in the paint, and Madeline Haak, who had 13, the Lady Hawks clawed back into the contest, trailing 28-26 at the half, and leading 44-40 after three.
“I love those two kids,” Boston said. “Madeline Haak and Monique Walker left it all out on the court tonight. It has been a joy to coach them.”
Playing before a packed house on senior night, L-E proved to be equally resilient. In the fourth quarter, post Derrica Henry came up with a pair of inside buckets and Skyler Bailey hit her second trey of the evening to help the Lady Leopards pull ahead for good with less than two minutes remaining.
Taylor Crabtree led all scorers with 17 points, Thompson had 11 and Keely Norris 10 for the district champs.
L-E 67, Hawks 63
In a game that saw eight lead changes and the biggest lead was six, Decorian Phillips was the difference. The senior guard hit five three-points, four in the second half and every one from the right corner, on his way to a game-high 26 points.
For the night, the Leopards sank eight three-pointers while the run-and-gun Hawks were iced cold from outside the stripe. Aaron Harmon’s trey at the 2:38 mark of the first half lifted the Hawks into a 29-23 lead was Pleasant Grove’s lone trey of the game.
It was followed by three straight turnovers that sent the Hawks into the locker room a short end of a 36-34 score.
“We just didn’t play,” said PG coach Billy Brewer. “We don’t have that continuity. We have to learn when to play hard, because we’ve got a big target on our back.”
L-E’s long-range bombardment overshadowed some good things for the Hawks. Freshman center Landon Jackson had seven blocks to go with six points. Xavier Benson had his best outing of the season, putting 21 points, most off tough, tightly contested buckets in the paint.
The home crowd began to heat up when Layton Jackson helped Pleasant Grove climb out of a hole of its own making by draining a three-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer to help the Hawks regain a lead squandered against Paris.
Perhaps sensing that a talented and deep group of players was beginning to meld into an elite team, the crowd worked itself into a frenzy in the opening moments of the fourth quarter when Ben Harmon drove the baseline and kicked the ball out to his wide-open brother, Luke, for a three-pointer. That was followed moments later by a steal and a perfect pass from Luke Harmon to Kameron Jackson for another three and a lead PG would never relinquish.
The 56-48 final left Pleasant Grove’s boys at 6-1 in district 14-4A, a full two games ahead of Paris and North Lamar with three to play.
Earlier in the evening, the girls overcame a sluggish start to demolish the Lady Wildcats, 61-37, to set up a showdown with Liberty-Eylau Tuesday at the Radar Dome for the district championship in the last game of the regular season. Both teams will come in at 8-1 in district and, whatever the outcome, both will be expected to make a run in the playoffs.
Lady Hawks 61, Paris 37
Pleasant Grove (19-7, 8-1) was cold in the opening minutes, allowing Paris to shoot out to an 8-2 lead midway through the first period.
Things started to go the Hawks way when Sha’Nequa Henry worked herself wide-open under the basket on an inbounds pass and sank the easy layup. Moments later, Madeline Haak intercepted a pass and drove the length of the court for another layup to pull PG within two.
Monique Walker followed that by driving the lane, drawing a foul and sinking both free throws.
Then Abby Hines went to work. On three straight Paris possessions she came down with rebounds and fired the ball downcourt to start the fast break. Two of those were inside buckets by Haak to give the Hawks a 12-10 lead with 51 seconds to play.
In the closing seconds, Hines drove into the paint, made her shot, was fouled and completed the three-point play to make it 15-10 at the end of one.
It was a route after that. Henry had eight points in the second quarter and Haak had five as PG outscored Paris 15-4 in the second quarter to go into the locker room with a 30-19 margin. The third quarter was a 16-2 Pleasant Grove run.
Henry was the game’s leading scorer with 18 points, and Haak was close behind with 15. Ashanti Levingston, who had to be carried off the court in the fourth quarter, had 13. Hines had eight.
Liberty-Eylau (16-11, 8-1) Friday night won its fourth straight following a 65-62 loss on Jan. 19 at PG by beating Pittsburg on the road, 65-35.
Pleasant Grove 56, Paris 48
In the beginning, the contest with Billy Mack Steed’s Paris Wildcats looked like a laugher.
Everything the Hawks tried worked.
Kameron Woods, the game’s leading scorer with 23, hit back-to-back three pointers, followed by another trey from Noah Fawbush as the Hawks raced out to a 15-6 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter was more of the same. Layton Jackson, who would finish with 12 points, dropped in a three-pointer. A few minutes later he went high in the air to put back a rebound. Ben Harmon launched a three-point try that hit nothing but the very bottom of the net, and just like that, PG was up 26-8 with 5 minutes left in the half.
“We’re young and maybe we’re nervous at the beginning of a game,” Steed said. “We couldn’t hit any shots. That’s what we did all night against North Lamar.”
In that game, the Wildcats were outscored 9-0 in the first quarter and ended with a 31-22 loss. This time, Paris nearly overcome its slow start.
“The one thing we did well is we didn’t quit,” Steed said.
After PG built an 18-point margin in the second quarter, Paris closed to within 11 before Fawbush hit another three pointer and Woods hit a jumper to give the Hawks a 32-17 halftime lead.
Then things started to fall apart. Helped by five PG turnovers, including three in a row, the Wildcats outscored the Hawks 21-7 in the third quarter. Trey Johnson, who led Paris with 18 points, dropped in seven during the run as Paris climbed into a 38-36 lead with 17 seconds remaining in the quarter.
That’s about the time that a change made by PG coach Billy Brewer began to assert itself. He went to his bench and sent in Fawbush, Layton Jackson and Ben and Luke Harmon.
“We have 10 good players on this team who are capable of playing,” he said, “and we needed to make a change.”
That’s exactly what those four, plus Woods, did.
Layton Jackson’s and Luke Harmon’s shot gave the Hawks the lead. Paris called a timeout, and Steed, who has probably made four mistakes in his illustrious coaching career, made a big one, sending six players out onto the court.
Luke Harmon hit one of the resulting two technical free throws to make it 46-38 with 6:55 to play.
Woods took it from there, scoring the next 10 points to put the Wildcats away. Jackson finished with 12 points and Fawbush had eight.
“They have some nice shooters,” Steed said wryly. “I wish we had some, but PG is a very good team.”
Good enough to go far in the playoffs?
“I don’t know about that,” Steed said.
Brewer, who in all his years as a player and coach has never advanced past the regional semifinals, said he is still waiting for his talented team to put together a complete game.
“I love this team. I love these kids,” Brewer said. “We came out and played great defense and great offense, and when adversity hit, we didn’t self-destruct like we did against Pittsburg.
“We’re coming together,” he added. “We have a good team. We just have to play hard.”
Early prediction: District champ odds-on favorite to win state championship
Atlanta is replaced by Liberty-Eylau in Pleasant Grove’s district, while Texas High faces some long commutes in the wake of UIL realignments announced today.
The Hawks will compete in of one of East Texas’ toughest conferences: Longview Spring Hill will be the only one of five schools in 6-4A, DII that does not hold a state football championship trophy.
On the other hand, the road to a Class 4A, Division II regional championship may have become a little easier. Perpetual playoff contenders Celina and Melissa, whom the Hawks knocked off in their march to a state title, were bumped up to D I.
Texas High’s district opponents are either in Tyler or in and around the DFW Metroplex.
Atlanta will likely begin the fall as the odds-on favorite to dominate District 7-3A, although Hooks, Hughes Springs, Jefferson, Redwater, Mount Vernon and New Boston might feel otherwise.
In baseball, basketball, and spring athletics the alignments are collapsed to a single division in each classification. That means that the two Paris schools, Paris High and North Lamar, will join to form District 14-4A.
The 4A volleyball alignment is slightly different, sending Gilmer and Spring Hill into a district that includes Bullard, Henderson and Kilgore.