MELISSA — His ferocious style while wearing a massive club for a cast on his broken hand suggested he may have been the baddest man on the field Friday night, but Melissa linebacker A.J. Blackwell may also have shed the biggest tears following an emotional 30-24 non-district win over Gunter.
Despite double-digit victory seasons over the past couple of years, including a state championship, Gunter has been the thorn in the Cardinals’ side. That is why Blackwell was "…so happy I’m crying" following a game where his sack of Austen Gressett with just over a minute left helped narrowly avoid yet another frustrating loss.
"They hate us," Gunter running back Kevin Teems said. "They wanted revenge for the past two years. They got it, but we gave them a fight."
Melissa used speed and big plays to build a 30-16 lead but every time it seemed the Cardinals had delivered the potential knockout blow, Gunter came plodding back with its patient running game. When the fourth quarter rolled around Teems and Garrett Hunter, along with the Tiger offensive line, began to wear down Melissa.
"They run the ball hard," Melissa head coach Seth Stinton said. "We tried to make some adjustments to try and slow them down a little bit but you hit a guy in the backfield and he falls forward for three or four yards. We felt the pressure there for a little bit for sure."
Troy Carrigan’s sack of Melissa’s Taylor McGehee for a safety with 7:15 left in the fourth quarter cut the lead to six and gave Gunter a chance to take the lead after the ensuing kickoff.
The Tiger offense continued its second-half form. Teems and Hunter, who combined for 279 yards rushing, went back to work pounding the middle, while Gressett sprinkled bootleg passes that generated just enough yards to keep drives alive.
The drive that began on Gunter’s 24 advanced to Melissa’s 21-yard line and drained five minutes off the clock. On the 12th play, Gressett reversed out for the bootleg that had converted so many third downs already, was met with pressure almost immediately and dropped by Blackwell for a 12-yard loss.
The Tigers attempted a hook-and-ladder on fourth down but only got 13 of the 18 yards needed, ending the comeback attempt.
McGehee, who finished with 77 yards rushing, ripped off scoring runs of 38 and 44 on the Melissa’s first two drives to give the Cardinals an early lead. He also had a 56-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Ellis on a one-play drive later in the half. Ellis added a four-yard TD run.
McGehee sat out most of the second half. Without him, the Cardinal offense only managed to run eight plays until the final possession to run out the clock. His first play of the second half was the sack for a safety midway through the fourth quarter.
"We need ball games like that to see where we’re at," Stinton said. "We got a little shaky in the second half, but we found a way to win."
Gressett connected with Spencer Lashley twice for touchdown passes — once in the middle of the second quarter and again with 10:38 left in the contest.