COLLEGE STATION — While it wasn’t the state championship that they had hoped for, Melissa’s Cardinals made a fine showing at the Division II State 7-on-7 Tournament at Veterans Park and Athletic Complex in College Station, June 29-30. In typically sizzling late-June conditions, the Cardinals advanced to the second round of the Championship bracket, with wins over Falls City, Stephenville and a mouthy Argyle squad before falling to China Spring.

Melissa’s lone loss in pool play was a one-point decision to Navasota — and its two losses overall were by a combined total of four points. Paul Anderson coached the Cards along with Fred Lewis and Weston Bartlett.

In the end, Graham emerged as 2017 champion of the 64-team field, defeating Wylie, 27-20, in the final. The Cards won the title in 2011, the same year they went on to win the Class 2A Division I state football championship.

See below a review of each Melissa contest at this year’s tournament, in chronological order, along with post-game comments from Anderson and Cardinal players. The touch-only games were played on 45-yard fields with 20-minute running-clock halves and 10-minute halftimes. Quarterbacks had four seconds to deliver a pass.

Pool play / June 29

Game 1 — Cards 42, Falls City Beavers 28

Melissa quickly built a 22-8 lead on TD strikes from Brendon Lewis to Colton McCraw, Kennedy Lewis and Junior Castleberry. Castleberry’s score was set up a play before by his grab on a deep ball down the right side. After the Beavers struck for a touchdown, Brendon Lewis hit Kennedy Lewis in stride down the middle for another Melissa score and the Cards led, 28-14. The half ended with McCraw grabbing an interception.

Melissa’s second stanza opened with two big catches by Breelyn Armstrong in the left flat. Brendon Lewis then found McCraw open in the back of the end zone to move the Cards’ lead to 34-14. After a Falls City score, Tate Whittington tacked on Melissa’s final touchdown with a catch on the goal line. A ref in the next county attempted to overrule the score, but failed. Whittington also reined in Brendon Lewis’ bullet in the back of the end zone for the 2-pt conversion.

“We were able to slow the ball down, keep control of it, make short passes and not let them have an opportunity to score,” Anderson said. “… They played like they’ve played all year. A lot of heart, a lot of gusto, ready to go.”

“We’ve got to keep the momentum, not let up,” Brendon Lewis said.

He praised his receivers for coming up with tough catches.

“It makes my job a lot easier knowing they can go up and get balls,” he said. “… The next two games are not going to be easy. I’ve just got to execute plays and the receivers have got to run their routes hard.”

Senior veteran quarterback Whittington said he was enjoying being on the other end of throws.

“I get in there for the fun of it,” Whittington said. “I just like playing so wherever I can get in, I try to get in.”

He noted that playing receiver involved more running than he’s used to.

“I’m not conditioned for it,” he said. “So if that’s where I’m going to play, I’ve got to get in shape.”

Game 2 — Cards 42, Stephenville Yellowjackets 37

After Cole McCraw again posted the Cards’ first TD, BJ Lewis pushed Melissa’s lead to 14-0 on a catch in the left flat. The Mapps twins then came up big defensively for the Cards with Chase knocking away a ball in the end zone to stop one drive and Chance nabbing an interception to stop another.

Stephenville finally scored late in the first half, hitting a wide open receiver down the middle. Just as it appeared that would do it for first-stanza scoring, Brendon Lewis fired to a sprinting Kennedy Lewis in the back right corner of end zone and Kennedy stabbed it with one hand as the halftime horn blew. A BJ Lewis catch tacked on the 2-point conversion and Melissa led, 22-7.

“I was focused on trying to get my feet in,” Kennedy Lewis said of the play, “and I just reached out there and I caught it.”

The Yellowjackets scored on their first drive of the second half, but the Cards responded with BJ Lewis’ second TD of the game to lead, 28-15. After Stephenville drew to within 28-23, Melissa came back with a TD to Marvin Jordan. Now leading, 34-23, a Grant Whittington pick ended the Yellowjackets’ next drive.

Not going away, Stephenville cut the lead to 34-31 as the final four minutes ticked down. Needing to answer, the Cards looked to Junior Castleberry who made two clutch catches before wrestling the ball from a Yellowjacket defender at the goal line for a score.

Stephenville scored once more as time expired, but Kennedy Lewis picked off the ensuing 2-point conversion try and took it to the house. Two points for Melissa — game over.

“The quarterback looked straight at him right before the play so I knew I knew it was coming his way,” Lewis said.

Anderson spoke of Castleberry’s goal-line skirmish for the Cards’ final TD.

“He took it away from the guy. The kids work hard in the summertime in the weight room and it paid off right there,” Castleberry said. “It was a return route, where I fake in and then come back out. It got a little physical but I managed to catch it.”

Brendon Lewis’ passing was solid again.

“He hit the short routes like we need him to,” Anderson said. “I feel great about the team. They’re competing very well. All the kids are competing at a high level.”

With the win, Melissa was assured a spot in the Championship Bracket. Win one more, and they’d be the pool’s No. 1 seed.

“I’m happy first,” Kennedy Lewis said. “But I’m really tired now.”

Game 3 — Navasota Rattlers 33, Cards 32

For the first time in pool play, the Cards fell behind early and it wound up costing them – just barely. Navasota jumped out, 12-0, before Melissa responded with a TD to Chance Mapps in the left flat. The Rattlers bit back with a TD and 2-point conversion, answered by a Junior Castleberry goal-line grab that made it 20-12 just before halftime. Cole McCraw’s 2-point conversion was not allowed due to a four-second call.

Navasota extended its lead to 26-12 in the second half before Brendon Lewis found McCraw open in the back of the end zone for a score. Then, down 26-18 with the Rattlers about to put the game away near the Cards’ goal line, McCraw stepped in front of pass in the end zone and returned it for a touchdown. Melissa’s Tate Whittington then batted away a deep ball in the end zone to end a Navasota’s next drive and momentum had clearly shifted.

The Rattlers, though, managed to go up 33-24 late. A TD catch by Marvin Jordan and 2-pt conversion grab by Kennedy Lewis moved Melissa to within 33-32 — but it was too late.

“Navasota’s got a real good team, offensively and defensively,” Anderson said. “We came out a little bit flat to start. That’s what kind of got us into trouble.”

Of McCraw’s big pick-6, Anderson said, “That was a game-changer. We thought we had a good chance after that. We just came up a little short.”

“They ran that route multiple times,” McCraw said of the play. “The guy that comes in motion always picks off (our defenders) and I saw it coming.”

“Hey, we’re in the winner’s bracket,” Anderson said. “It’s a hot day and tomorrow’s a new day.”

Said McCraw, “It feels good. Now we’ve just got to go win some games tomorrow.”

Championship bracket / June 30

Game 1 – Cards 36, Argyle Eagles 34

After eight lead changes in this slugfest, Melissa finally got some separation late in the second half when they got a stop and Brendon Lewis found Cole McCraw deep for the decisive score.

A Ja’Bray Young interception stopped Argyle’s first drive and Brendon Lewis soon found Kennedy Lewis open for a TD in the right corner. The Eagles came back with a score and 1-point conversion to grab a 7-6 lead. That’s when the back-and-forth commenced:

-Chance Mapps TD; Cards up, 12-7

-Argyle bomb one play later; Eagles, 14-12

-Bomb to Kennedy Lewis, first play of second half; Cards, 18-14

-Argyle bomb; Eagles, 21-14

-Melissa goal-line TD; Cards, 24-21

-Argyle short TD; Eagles, 28-24

-Chance Mapps TD; Cards, 30-28

Then Melissa got its stop — and Brendon Lewis connected with McCraw for a 36-28 Cardinal lead. Argyle would draw close late, scoring on a pass to the right flat, but on the Eagles’ potential game-tying 2-point try, Tate Whittington tipped the ball away in the back of the end zone.

It was Argyle’s lone tournament loss.

“Man, they’re a great team,” Anderson said of the Eagles. “They’ve always been a great team — several 7-on-7 championships. It was great to come out and compete with them and watch our kids step up after the tough loss they took yesterday. Tate made the great play at the end to seal the victory. He got a hand on the pass, just enough to knock it away.”

“I knew they were a good team,” Young said. “But I knew we were better than them. … During the game, they were talking trash, saying we were cheating and stuff. The safeties were just talking back and forth with us. We didn’t let that affect us though, really. … I think we’re playing great right now. Offense, we’re rolling. We’ve haven’t been stopped on offense. The defense, we have to work on it, but we’re still doing good on defense.”

Game 2 — China Spring Cougars 35, Cards 32

This is the game where Kennedy Lewis could have used pads and a helmet — maybe a flak jacket. He was shoved down/tackled no fewer than four times during the course of this one — with nary a flag thrown. The Cards had their chances, though, with two-score leads three times in the contest — including twice in the second half.

After China Spring scored on its first possession, Melissa came back with a shot to Kennedy Lewis in the right corner of the end zone which he appeared to catch. But the ball came out as he was ridden to the ground like a rodeo steer and the score was disallowed. Kennedy stayed down after the play and was attended to by coaches.

The Cards stopped China Spring’s next drive and on Melissa’s next snap, Brendon Lewis found Junior Castleberry open over the middle for a score. The point-after was no good and the Cards trailed, 7-6.

The Cougars’ next TD was erased due to pass interference and on fourth down near Melissa’s goal line Tate Whittington and Payton Wallace broke up the pass to end the threat. Brendon Lewis then connected with Kennedy Lewis to the China Spring 2 before finding Kennedy for a TD in the back of the end zone. Kennedy was flat-out tackled on his 2-point conversion catch and the Cards led, 14-7.

Melissa took control on China Springs’ next possession when Wallace picked off a pass followed moments later by BJ Lewis juking past a Cougar defender for a touchdown after taking a pass in the left flat. “Tate Whittington tipped it up,” Wallace said of his takeaway, “and my natural instinct was to just go after the ball. I was very excited. I loved it.”

Down 20-7, China Spring regained the momentum with a touchdown at the halftime horn to trail by six at the break.

The Cards opened the second half with a deep pass to Cole McCraw down to the 5 and BJ Lewis gathered in a TD pass at the goal line to give Melissa a 26-14 lead. The Cougars answered with a score before Ja’Bray Young got loose down the left sideline for a Cards touchdown.

This time, it took China Spring just one play to respond — a deep ball down the right side that cut Melissa’s lead to 32-28. The Cougars then finally got a stop and moved in for the go-ahead score. Down 35-32 with about 2:30 to go, the Cards tried two deep throws – one to McCraw, one to Chase Mapps in the end zone — but both fell incomplete.

“China Spring has always been real good at 7 on 7,” Anderson said. “I thought our kids competed well. I thought we had a real good chance. We just ran out of time there at the end.”

What now? “I think that we get ready for Friday-night football here in a couple of weeks. Our team is real young. I think we’re only going to be losing about five kids next year. I think it’s been a great time and I think it’s been a great experience for them to come down and spend time with each other and family.”

“They’re a great team,” Wallace said of the Cougars. “All respect to them. It was a good game. … “It was a great experience. It was my first year doing it and I’m very satisfied with it. But I wish we could have gone all the way.”