Cuero, the team everybody expected to be here, to battle Pleasant Grove, the team no one thought would be here
ARLINGTON, Texas – It will be a team of destiny vs. a team of determination when Cuero and Pleasant Grove meet in the Class 4A Division II State Championship battle at 11 a.m. Friday at AT&T Stadium.
The Gobblers (14-1), a team everyone expected to be here, bring an accomplished and star-studded group that has won at every level since seventh grade. Pleasant Grove, wiped nearly clean by a tsunami graduation, is the team no one expected to be here.
Senior wideout Jordan Whittington, whom Burnt Orange Nation describes as the second-best signee in Texas’ top-10 class of 2019, headlines a Cuero roster that includes six Associated Press all-state players. The Hawks, by comparison, placed four players on the AP all-state team, three of those honorable mentions, and one of whom is rehabilitating a knee that blew out a knee six weeks ago.
“Great athletes don’t win football games, great teams do.” – Josh Gibson
“They’re athletic and dynamic, really fast,” said Pleasant Grove Coach Josh Gibson. “This was a group that they thought would have a chance at winning a state title.” Cuero should know. Friday will mark a state-record 11th time the Gobblers have played in a state title game. Cuero won three of those games.
The school from the town known the unofficial “turkey capital of the world,” was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 all season long. Defending champion PG (13-2), facing a massive rebuild job on the lines, was picked to finish third or fourth in its own district, but doggedly clawed its way to the top of the state heap. PG enters the game No. 1 in MaxPreps’ and THSCA rankings, and No. 2 in Dave Campbell’s.
Speed to burn
Whittington, the No. 53 prospect nationally and No. 6 in Texas, does everything for Cuero. He was voted a second-team all-state defensive back by the Associated Press.
After missing the first four games of the season with a groin injury, Whittington (No.3) caught 46 passes for 905 yards, a 19.7 average, and 12 TDs. He has 31 carries for 512 yards, a 16.5 average per carry, and nine TDs. He threw two passes and completed both for 87 yards and two scores. He has intercepted 5 passes and returned them for 231 yards, a 46.2 average. He averages 14.1 yards on punt returns and 11 yards on kickoff returns.
But he is not the entire show for a team that averages 50.5 points a game. The lines are salty. Senior center Caden Jander, (6-1, 260, No. 54) was voted first-team all-state and senior guard Brandon Nemec, (6-1, 255, N. 50) was named to the second team.
If Whittington provides the Gobblers’ juice, senior defensive tackle Trey Moore (No. 8), an all-state honorable mention provides the heart.
In the second week of the season, Cuero traveled 16 miles across the southeast Texas coastal plain and stubbed its toe with a 30-20 loss to cross-county rival Yoakum, a Class 3A Division 1 team that would finish 12-3.
The following week Moore’s mother, a consistently vocal and visible Gobbler supporter, passed away. Despite coach Travis Reeve’s admonition that he needed to rest and grieve that week, Moore insisted that his mom would want him to play.
Two nights later, he carried the school flag as he led the team onto the field against El Campo. He had 10 tackles, including three for losses, deflected two passes and sealed the victory with a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Last Friday, with Silsbee (10-5, runner-up in 4A-10) driving for the winning score in the closing minutes, Moore jumped on a fumbled snap to seal the win.
“It was a crazy feeling,” he told the Cuero Record. “You hear the crowd screaming. That’s a real moment. You feel like you’re the king of the world at the time.”
Senior Keiran Grant (5-11, 175, No. 5) earned an honorable mention at defensive back but is an elite athlete at running back, where he averages 106 yards per game and has scored 25 touchdowns. He’s accompanied in the backfield by senior Chance Albrecht (6-0, 200, No. 7), who averages 110 ypg and scored 30 touchdowns.
Senior quarterback Michael Barta (No. 12) has hit on 104 of 155 passes, a 67 percent rate, for 2,098 yards and 25 interceptions against seven interceptions. The Gobblers average 154 yards per game passing and 252 rushing.
Grit is the first word that comes to mind when describing a Pleasant Grove squad that has but 13 seniors on the 53-man varsity roster.
A wizened educator once observed of young athletes that early performance is no indicator of later performance, so great and variable-ladened is the difference between potential and actualization. So it is with the current crop of sophomores and juniors, who won a total of three games in middle school.
‘Win or lose Friday, this season has been miraculous,” said Gibson, noting that he expects to win. “We have a bunch of young kids with a few great senior leaders. Starting with boot camp back in January, they came here continuing what we’ve been doing: striving for excellence every day.
“We never come here (the fieldhouse) to work out,” Gibson said. “We come here to work and grow every day.
“When the kids believe, magic can happen.”
The summer miracle
A mass exodus occurred after last season’s first-ever state title. Ten players, including two leading rushers, and a record-breaking wideout went somewhere on scholarships. A dozen other hard-working, well-conditioned, disciplined high school athletes headed off to college, work, and life in general. Dominant offensive and defensive lines disappeared.
Expert prognosticators, including some of the experts who vote on the AP all-state team, looked at district powerhouses Gilmer, Pittsburg, and Liberty-Eylau and figured PG for a No. 3 or 4 seed come playoff time (full disclosure, mea culpa).
Then a funny thing happened on the way to disaster. Famous for its run-first, misdirection-oriented, Wing-T offense, PG works surprisingly hard on its passing game. Junior quarterback Ben Harmon (6-1, 180, No. 10) last year led a talented group of players to the state finals of summer 7-on-7 play.
This year, with his senior go-to guys gone and some of the best players active with baseball in one of PG’s customary run to the state tournament, the 7-on-7 squad did not get together until the first day of the state tournament.
The first game was a disaster. Melissa, which runs a spread offense, blew out the Hawks, 60-14.
“They undressed us,” Gibson said ruefully. The team gathered under a nearby grove of trees and regrouped, and reminded itself who it was, where it came from, and how it played.
In the next game, PG edged Stephenville. Then the Hawks won two more to play into the single-elimination winners’ bracket. In the semifinal, they knocked off Melissa, 36-34. In the final, they lost to Midlothian Heritage, a 4A Division 1 school that this fall went undefeated in its district.
“We got right back where we were the year before when we had all that talent,” Gibson said, his face breaking into a wide grin. “Right there, that showed us who we could be and what we could do.”
When you win state titles, it’s hard to find willing non-district opponents. Three of the Hawks pre-district games came in the next class size. Five of the Hawks’ first six games came against teams that finished either first or second in their districts and went on to win at least two playoff games.
Here PG learned to fight against its weight, especially in the final non-district encounter against defending two-time Class 4A Division 1 champion Carthage, riding a 30-game win streak when PG came to town.
With the game tied at 21 in the closing minutes, PG drove the length of the field, forcing Carthage to use up all its timeouts. The Hawks had the ball at the Carthage 25 and were ready to burn up the remaining clock before setting up for a winning field-goal try by senior Dillon Williams (5-6, 135, No. 8) who would go on to convert 73 of 75 PATs and 8 of 11 field goals with a long of 47 – not good enough to earn an honorable mention from AP.
“We had Carthage on the ropes,” Gibson said. “We were controlling the ball on the clock.”
Alas, a fumbled snap gave new life to the Bulldogs, who marched down the field to take the win, 28-21, but a team was born.
“We knew that we could not only play with the best in the state, but we could also beat them,” Gibson said.
PG has not lost since. It marched through a district that finished with three teams in the Texas Top 10 and whipped both Gilmer and Pittsburg again in the third and fourth rounds of the playoffs.
“Great athletes don’t win football games, great teams do,” Gibson said. “We may not have the flashiest players, but we have a lot of other ingredients here. We play smart. We play hard. We play together.”
Not that PG is without talent. In Gibson-speak, this team has some “dudes.”
It starts with Harmon, whose three TD passes in the first half of the semifinals put him at 30 for the year, breaking the school record he set a year ago. Harmon has hit on 86 of 156 passes for 1,936 yards. He has thrown five interceptions
Senior Brett Walker (6-0, 155, no. 12) caught nine of those TD passes and senior Jackson Cobb (6-11, 160, No.3) snared eight.
Junior wingback Bruce Garrett (5-11, 187, No.2 or “deuce” as the crowd is fond of saying) leads the rushing attack. With 1,796 yards and 17 TDs on 243 carries, he now holds the school rushing record. He averages 7.39 yards per carry.
“Bruce is elusive and strong. He’s fast. He’s determined. He’s the total package,” Gibson said.
Senior fullback James Wiggins (No. 33) has stepped in well into the role vacated by last year’s championship game offensive MVP T.J. Cole.
“When you lose an all-state fullback like T.J. and can replace him, that’s amazing,” Gibson said. “James puts his whole freakin’ heart and soul into every carry.”
So far, that’s been good enough for 1,243 yards and 10 TDs on 192 carries. Wiggins averages 6.5 yards per carry.
The defensive backfield is a strength of the PG’s Black Flag defense. Senior Tyler Kelly (No. 13) has eight picks, one off the school record, earned second-team all-state honors. Senior Kam Woods (No. 15) did not play last year but has six interceptions this year. An AP all-state honorable mention, Woods has already picked up multiple scholarship offers.
Safety Brian Pickleman, with 53 tackles and four INTs is the quarterback of the secondary.
A pair of sophomore linemen, Marcus Burris (No. 44) and noseguard Cameron Weekly (No. 74) along with junior Jamie Lewis (No. 54) lead a pack of youngsters bringing the Fat Boy Gang back to life.
Not on the field Friday will be arguably the Hawks’ best player, and according to the coach the hardest worker, No. 40, sophomore Landon Jackson, who had a big game in last year’s final. Nursing a knee with multiple injuries that should be back at full strength by summer, Jackson already holds offers from Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and others. He earned an all-state honorable mention.
Despite playing a brutal schedule, PG has held opponents to less than 20 points per game. One reason is a rock-solid run defense anchored by Weekly and senior inside linebackers Caleb Hemphill (No. 8) and Bladen Reaves, No. 16.
Reaves, son of assistant coach Kevin Reaves, transferred in from Bryan Rudder, where he started on a 2-8 team.
“This is the first time I’ve been in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s a big change. The discipline is so much greater here. The community is so much more involved.”
Hemphill started on the outside in last year’s championship game. His leadership is one reason the team seems to approach Friday’s matchup in a business-like manner.
“We know what to expect. The community knows what to expect,” he said of the last game of his high school career. “Once it’s done, it’s done. It will be an emotional game. I’m going to leave it all out there on that field.
“We want to go out in style.”