WAXAHACHIE — In a match-up many did not foresee, Melissa’s Cardinals drew surprising China Spring in the area round of the Class 4A(I) Region II area playoffs last Thursday at Lumpkins Stadium. The fourth-seeded Cougars of District 5-4A(I) came in with a 4-7 record after stunning 7-3 Kennedale, 50-22, the week before — and that was plenty to get the attention of Cards head coach Matt Nally and his staff, who had a short week to prepare.


“The biggest thing for us going into the game was how physical they were and how much grit and moxy they had,” Nally said shortly after his charges had rallied three times to beat back the Cougars, 40-31. “Defensively, we knew going in they were going to be bigger than us up front. Then [China Spring quarterback Brayden Faulkner] is a big ol’ boy and he likes to run downhill.”


Asked what Melissa’s sideline was like, trailing twice in the second half, Nally laughed, “Kids are a little bit more resilient than adults. The anxiety level for the adults was extremely high.”


Said China Spring head coach Brian Bell, “I’m incredibly proud of our seniors and the kind of football our kids put out there on the field. They fought their tails off and competed to the bitter end. You’ve got to give credit to Melissa too. They played a great ball game, a four-quarter game.”


Forecast big rains never came but the artificial turf was soaked from earlier showers. That may have contributed to six combined first-half turnovers, including four fumbles. China Springs fared worse than the Cards, losing three fumbles and getting picked off once before the break.


Melissa now gets defending 4A Division I state champion Waco La Vega (11-1), 35-13 winners over Celina on Friday. This regional-quarterfinal showdown is a rematch of last year’s area-round contest in Corsicana, a meeting La Vega won, 68-21. This year’s iteration is slated for 7 p.m. Friday at Fort Worth Brewer High School.


Lewis strikes again


The Cards (9-3) led China Spring 21-17 at halftime and 28-24 after three quarters.


All told, Melissa rolled to 542 yards of offense, with 300-plus coming on the ground. Cards quarterback Brendon Lewis had another exceptional night, throwing for 230 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 105 yards and two scores. “He is a special player,” Nally said. “Everybody looks at his athletic ability. He’s really a better person. He’s our team leader. He’s our energy guy and we’re really glad we get to snap the ball to him.”


“I love this team” Lewis said. “It was a great team win. Nothing in the world can take this from us. We’re not done yet. … [The Cougars] were scrappy at first, but once we got the feel for the game and started executing, they couldn’t stop us. We really just stopped ourselves the whole game.”


“It was a surprise [playing China Spring],” Melissa defensive end Caleb Kroese said, “but we stopped them - made good plays whenever we could. I’m proud of my quarterback. It was amazing. I’m glad we pulled out the win.”


Kroese had a big night, logging two fumble recoveries, three solo tackles, four assists and two tackles-for-a-loss. Linebacker Parker Jack did as well - with seven solo stops, two assists, a fumble recovery and three tackles-for-a-loss.


Cards running back Xylohn Posey romped for a game-high 120 yards on 16 carries, with a go-ahead touchdown run in the third quarter. Ja’Bray Young bruised for 80 yards on 13 carries.


Tyler Burton led Melissa receivers with five catches for 120 yards, including a backbreaking 62-yard catch-and-run TD that gave the Cards a 34-24 lead with 9:09 left to play. Chase Mapps and Braeden Smith also grabbed touchdown passes for Melissa.


China Spring’s ground game showed some clout, grinding out 287 yards on 46 carries. Emmanuel Abdallah led Cougar rushers with 107 yards on 15 carries, including a 34-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Faulkner rushed for 78 yards on 10 carries before being helped off the field with a leg injury in the third quarter. K.J. Peoples took over and finished with a rushing TD and a touchdown pass.


Along with two first-half turnovers - an interception and a fumble - the Cards endured two bad punt snaps and a botched extra-point try before the break. Nally said he told his team at halftime, “Guys, everything that could go bad went bad and we’re still winning the game. That’s not our level of play. … When that adversity struck I was really proud of our kids and how they overcame that and pushed through to be successful.”


Kroese cruises


Melissa’s first possession ended with an interception near midfield on a bobbled pass, but the Cougars gave it back two plays later when Kroese fell on a loose ball at the China Spring 40. That Cards drive stalled on 4th-and-7 from the Cougars’ 15 and two snaps later, Faulkner burst through the line for 68 yards before being stripped of the ball by Chase Mapps. Jack recovered for Melissa at the Cards’ 15.


A three-and-out followed and on fourth down, things got dicey for Melissa when the snap sailed over punter David Patrick’s head and into the end zone. Patrick alertly retrieved the ball and got off a kick but the Cougars were in business at Melissa’s 26. On the next play, Dawson Exline charged up the middle to the house and China Spring led, 7-0, with 5:18 left in the first stanza.


The Cards got it going next with a 75-yard, 13-play scoring drive capped by Lewis’ 5-yard quarterback draw. The march featured a 46-yard completion to Burton, a 4th-and-8-conversion pass to Antonio Robinson and a 17-yard scamper by Posey.


The Cougars then moved to Melissa’s 19 before a Chase Mapps pick and 20-yard return ended the threat.


The Cards’ next series ended with a low snap to the punter that was recovered by China Spring at the Melissa 15. The Cards’ defense, though, rose up and allowed only a 26-yard field goal for a 10-6 Cougar lead.


Melissa’s subsequent drive got to midfield before Lewis lost the handle on an exchange and the Cougars took over on their own 44. Two plays later, Kroese scooped up a loose ball and returned it 35 yards to the Cougar’s 10-yard-line. One play later, Lewis drilled a TD pass to Smith in the right flat and Young’s 2-point conversion run put the Cards up, 14-10, with six minutes left in the half.


“I was happy,” Kroese said of his takeaway. “I looked to my left and saw two China Spring guys over there. … I felt one of them swat at the ball and I just held it - and got tackled.” What was Kroese thinking as he motored up-field? “Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown!” he laughed.


The Cougars answered with seven-play march to Melissa’s 34 where Abdallah took it the rest of the way for a 17-14 China Spring advantage. Lewis and Company didn’t take long to get back on top, with Chase Mapps hauling in a mid-range pass, spinning away from a defender and sprinting for a 46-yard touchdown.


Cougars lose QB


To open the third quarter, the Cougars plowed for good yardage up the middle, reaching Melissa’s 10 after an 8-yard run by Faulkner. But that play would end Faulkner’s night and Peoples came on. Peoples’ 1-yard TD dive gave China Spring a 24-21 lead with 7:13 to go in the third.


But the Cards would move ahead for good, 28-24, late in that stanza when Posey bolted six yards into the end zone. That score capped a 72-yard, eight-play drive with Posey gashing for 36 total yards on four carries.


In the fourth, the Lewis-to-Burton 62-yard TD strike put Melissa up by 10 for the first time, 34-24. Burton took Lewis’ offering over the middle, made two moves then picked up Chase Mapps’ block enroute to the left-side end-zone pylon. “It was open all game,” Lewis said. “I should’ve thrown it earlier. … Tyler did a great job with the run after the catch. I just gave it to him and he did the rest.”


The Cougars bounced back with an 83-yard, 13-play touchdown drive to trail, 34-31, with 4:59 left to play. That score came on a 24-yard seeing-eye pass to double-covered Jacob Kuligowski in the back of the end zone.


China Spring’s ensuing onside kick was recovered by Melissa’s Colton Wittwer at midfield and from there, Posey got loose for 16 and 10 yards on back-to-back carries. Then, with two minutes to go, Lewis delivered the decider – an 18-yard dash to pay dirt off the right side.


Down 40-31, Peoples’ desperation 4th-and-13 pass was batted way by Chase Mapps, ending China Spring’s hopes for a miracle finish.


________________________________________________________________


Melissa 6 15 7 12 - 40


China Spring 7 10 7 7 - 31


FIRST QUARTER


CS – Dawson Exline 26 run (Karson Coe kick), 5:18


M – Brendon Lewis 5 run (kick failed), 2:48


SECOND QUARTER


CS – Karson Coe 26 FG, 9:26


M – Braeden Smith 10 pass from Brendon Lewis (Ja’Bray Young run), 6:41


CS – Emmanuel Abdallah 34 run (Karson Coe kick), 3:20


M – Chase Mapps 43 pass from Brendon Lewis, (Luke Hansen kick), 2:17


THIRD QUARTER


CS – K.J. Peoples 1 run (Karson Coe kick), 7:13


M – Xylohn Posey 6 run (Luke Hansen kick), 4:24


FOURTH QUARTER


M – Tyler Burton 62 pass from Brendon Lewis (kick failed)


CS – Jacob Kuligowsky 24 pass from K.J. Peoples (Karson Coe kick), 4:59


M – Brendon Lewis 18 run (kick failed), 2:01


Stats Melissa China Spring


First downs 20 17


Rushes-yards 45-312 47-287


Passing yards 230 72


C-A-I 13-26-1 5-13-1


Punts-average 2-18 3-27


Penalties-yards 10-75 5-50


Fumbles-lost 3-2 4-3


Individual statistics


Rushing - Melissa: Xylohn Posey 16-120, Brendon Lewis 13-105, Ja’Bray Young 13-80, Chase Mapps 1-5, Braeden Smith 2-2. China Spring: Emmanuel Abdallah 15-107, Brayden Faulkner 10-78, Dawson Exline 6-62, KJ Peoples 10-51, Major Bowden 5-24, Team 1-(-35).


Passing - Melissa: Brendon Lewis 13-26-1-230. China Spring: Brayden Faulkner 3-5-1-42, KJ Peoples 2-8-0-30.


Receiving - Melissa: Tyler Burton 5-120, Antonio Robinson 3-22, Chase Mapps 2-50, Ezra Monroe 2-28, Braeden Smith 1-10. China Spring: Jacob Kuligowski 3-37, KJ Peoples 3-35.