An earlier version of the article that aired online misidentified Trevor Duggan .
MESQUITE — If the Gilmer Buckeyes thought they had this one wrapped up with a 14-0 lead at halftime, they were quite mistaken. A second-half team all year, Melissa came out after the break and administered a 35-9 shellacking the rest of the way for a 35-23 win in Friday’s Class 4A Division II Region II semifinal matchup at Memorial Stadium.
Cardinal running back Ja’Bray Young erupted for four second-half touchdowns, including scoring sprints of 50 and 51 yards, and quarterback Brendon Lewis, who threw for 247 yards, added more shock value with an 80-yard touchdown strike to Kennedy Lewis in the third quarter.
Young finished with 176 yards on 17 carries while Kennedy Lewis totaled four catches for 158 yards. The Cardinal defense all but shut down Gilmer’s explosive offense in the second half, though Buckeye quarterback Aaron “Poppy” Brown got his passing yards: 248 total, with two touchdowns.
This was Melissa’s first-ever victory over Gilmer after three blow-out losses and with it the Cards extended their school-record win-streak for a single season to 12.
Melissa (12-1) moves on to face undefeated Texarkana Pleasant Grove in the Region II finals at 7 p.m., Friday, at Wildcat Stadium in Paris.
“It’s a pretty good feeling,” Cards head coach Seth Stinton said, fresh from a water cooler bath. “I’m so proud of our kids. They’ve been working so hard to get over that Gilmer ‘mystique’ a little bit. Our guys responded so well. We got down early but there’s no quit in us.
“Probably the biggest thing was we got some stuff going offensively. We had opportunities in the first half to make some plays and had some stuff not go our way. Our kids made those plays in the second half. Then our defense was just tremendous all night.
“The message to our guys was, ‘They’re a good football team, but so are we. We can’t get down if they make plays. They’re going to make plays. They’ve been making plays for a long time. Do what we do, we’ll be us, and we’re going to be OK.’
“We knew we could run the football. We knew we could get them in certain situations, certain formations, so we could do some stuff to them.”
“Our coaches told us to stay positive,” quarterback Brendon Lewis said. “We knew we were the better team, but we have a tendency to start off slow. The o-line, everybody, did their part and the defense stepped up.”
“I know we’re getting better each week,” Young said. “I feel good about being on this team.” The team’s mindset coming out after halftime? “We’re not going to lose,” Young said. “It’s not time to go home.”
Cardinals offensive lineman Trevor Duggan said line coach Josh Gilbert told them at the break, “It’s time to be a man.” Duggan added, “(Being down) was nothing but motivation for us. We were saying, ‘That’s two touchdowns. We can get two touchdowns easy.’”
Duggan said preparing for Gilmer had been “nothing but emotions all week,” with high tempo. “It was like Celina all over again,” he said.
“I’d say we were just hungry,” fellow o-lineman Ryan Humphries said.
“All we needed was a score to get the momentum,” senior linebacker Payton Wallace said. “During halftime, we changed a couple of things and fixed it from there. We came out pumped up, ready to go.”
Melissa’s first scoring drive, 81 yards in five plays, featured a 30-yard scamper by senior Breelyn Armstrong and was capped by Young’s 1-yard dive to pay-dirt. Senior Grant Whittington recovered the Cards’ ensuing onside kick at midfield and one play later Young romped 50 yards up the middle and into the end zone again.
Gilmer quickly broke the 14-14 tie after six plays when Brown connected with Bran Webb for a 30-yard touchdown pass. Melissa came right back with the bomb to Kennedy Lewis but the Buckeyes blocked the point-after kick and returned it for two points and Gilmer kept the lead, 23-20, with a minute left in the third quarter.
Linebacker Marvin Jordan reclaimed the momentum for Melissa with an interception near midfield on the Buckeyes’ next possession. Seven plays later, Young’s 12-yard touchdown run and Kennedy Lewis’ 2-point conversion catch put the Cards up for good, 28-23, with 10:55 remaining.
After ineligible-player-downfield-penalty erased Gilmer’s apparent 48-yard touchdown pass to Qua Heath, Young and the Cards’ o-line closed it out with Young’s 51-yard scoring dash with under four minutes left. Melissa’s BJ Lewis picked off Brown’s final pass, a deep ball near the Cards’ 20 and from there, Brendon Lewis and company ran out the clock.
After the Buckeyes’ first touchdown, a 25-yard Brown-to-Webb pass, Gilmer recovered an on-side kick near mid-field. But Melissa ended the threat on 4th-and-10 from the Cardinal 29 when defensive end Caleb Kroese batted away Brown’s pass.
Melissa then drove 51 yards to the Buckeye 20 where, on 4th-and-8, Brendon Lewis and Cole McCraw just missed connecting over the middle in the end zone. The Buckeyes followed with an 80-yard, five-play TD march capped Brown’s 3-yard run, and two minutes into the second quarter perhaps some Cardinal faithful feared the worst. Things continued to look grim when Melissa’s next promising drive ended with an interception in the end zone.
But the Cards’ defense held Gilmer scoreless the rest of the first half, setting the stage for Melissa’s memorable takedown of a potent nemesis.
“It’s been awhile coming,” senior receiver and linebacker Tate Whittington said. “They’ve gotten us in past years pretty good. It’s big for us to come out and beat them. They’re a great football team. … We just had to refocus. We’ve been a second-half team all year. We were only down 14-0 and I think the guys started realizing, ‘Hey, we got this.’”
G - Bran Webb 25 pass (Adan Ibarra kick), 4:13
G - Aaron Brown 3 run (Adan Ibarra kick), 10:35
M - Ja’Bray Young 1 run (Grayson Hurst kick), 5:44
M - Ja’Bray Young 50 run (Grayson Hurst kick), 5:28
G - Bran Webb 30 pass from Aaron Brown (Adan Ibarra kick), 3:06
M - Kennedy Lewis 80 pass from Brendon Lewis (kick blocked, returned for 2 points), 1:09
M - Ja’Bray Young 12 run (Kennedy Lewis pass from Brendon Lewis), 3:47
M – Ja’Bray Young 51 run (Grayson Hurst kick), 3:47
Rushing - Gilmer: Aaron Brown 14-67, Bran Webb 14-65, Braydon Bates 1-1. Melissa: Ja’Bray Young 17-156, Brendon Lewis 12-71, Chance Mapps 7-34, Breelyn Armstrong 8-16.
Passing - Gilmer: Aaron Brown 19-34-2-248. Melissa: Brendon Lewis 9-21-1-247.
Receiving - Gilmer: Bran Webb 6-55, Morgan Lusty 5-109, Tra Fluellen 4-56, Qua Heath 3-18, Braydon Bates 2-10. Melissa: Kennedy Lewis 4-158, Tate Whittington 3-46, Junior Castleberry 2-43.