Cardinals send Kennedale home 43-17 in Area

By Rick Bailey
Anna-Melissa Tribune

Melissa - After the Kennedale Wildcats (10-1-1) saw their 20th consecutive playoff run come to an abrupt end Friday night when they ran into the underdogs that were the Melissa Cardinals (11-1) in a 43-17 loss in the Class 4A Division I area round game at Grapevine Mustang-Panther Stadium the Cardinals accomplished their primary goal. They were 1-0 for the week and now will be working out during Thanksgiving week in preparation for the Regional semifinals round of the playoffs. 

Cardinal head coach Matt Nally has been saying all season that his team has one primary focus. To prepare each week to be 1-0 by the end of the week and live to play again the following week. That has been the mantra for the 2020 Melissa Cardinals and it is apparent when you talk to players, coaches and others that it is for real. Nally said on Friday night, “We have gotten better each week and we are climbing the mountain together. At this point in the season we want to be able to show up for the next week and prepare to face our next opponent.”

Melissa came into the Area round playoff game as underdogs according to many sources  and into a contest that was predicted to be full of “fireworks”. The underdog tag just gave the Cardinals something more to prove when they faced off against the Wildcats on Friday night. According to Cardinal defensive coordinator Nate Hemsley, “Anytime you give kids like ours the extra incentive of being called the underdog it is going to only serve to motivate them more. The defense was called out and these kids stepped up and showed what they are made of.” 

Cardinal head coach Matt Nally also said on Friday night, “I’m old school and believe in a strong defense and being able to set up an offense to run downhill and control tempo. Our defensive staff and their kids did just that when they responded to the challenge. We’re proud of those kids and coaches for the job they did against a very strong opponent.”

Melissa’s high octane offense provided the only “fireworks” on the evening as they immediately went to work on the opening kickoff when Carlos Branch returned it 38 yards and after two Sam Fennegan completions to Braeden Smith (18 yards) and Colton Wittwer (21 yards) the Cardinals scored. Braeden Smith scored the first of his three touchdowns on an 18 yard run to give them a 6-0 lead. Smith ended the night with 233 yards rushing on 23 carries to pace the downhill rushing attack that Nally referred to in his postgame interview. Altogether Melissa managed 296 yards rushing out of the 521 yards total they put on the board. 

Meanwhile,  Cardinal quarterback Sam Fennegan added a pair of touchdown passes with 238 yards through the air on just 13 of 25 passing. Kennedale did manage 146 yards on the ground, but 52 of those came on two plays – including a 21-yard touchdown run by Marlete Joyner just before halftime that cut the lead to 26-10.

Kennedale was down 19-0 in the second quarter and they  put together a 14-play drive that got them on the scoreboard with a 38-yard Aidan Birr field goal. But Melissa answered immediately, with a drive of their own going 82 yards before Colton Wittmer caught a 45-yard TD pass from Sam Fennegan. 

The Cardinals gave Kennedale the opportunity for the Joyner score after a roughing the passer infraction in the third quarter which made the score 26-10. The Cardinal defense then erased any doubt with a defensive stand at their own four at the end of the third and one play in the fourth quarter. 

They followed the defensive stand with a seven play 97-yard march to stretch the lead to 33-10 on a Fennegan to Wittwer two yard touchdown pass. 

Kennedale’s special teams kept the Wildcats hopes alive as Tyler Choice returned the ensuing kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown. On the next play kicker Aidan Birr recovered his own onside kick. After Birr’s recovery however, Kennedale managed just one yard of offense and was forced to punt.

In fitting fashion the final score of the game came with 2:35 left in the final quarter on a 44 yard touchdown by Braeden Smith. Smith finished with 233 yards on the night and when he was asked about the last touchdown he commented, “When they called the play I just kept telling myself to finish the deal. I knew I had to score if it was there and my line opened up a huge hole for me. They deserve all the credit.” Smith was also asked about the dust up just prior to the end of the first half between the Cardinals and Wildcats and he added, “Coach Nally told us to be smart and don’t bite on what they were feeding us. He told us to play clean, do it the right way and stay focused on our goal.”

A big part of the success on Friday was the Melissa defense who stood out in keeping a Kennedale squad that had averaged 36.5 points per game heading into Friday in check. Melissa held the usually strong running game in check. Melissa had eight tackles for a loss with lineman Isaiah Cherry and Dylan Herrin having two each. 

“Our defense played well because of our coaches' preparation and our players' execution. We’re familiar with the Wing-T,” head coach Nally said. “To play defense like this and run the ball downhill like this is a dream.” “Our next opponent, Paris is also a Wing-T team and the experience against Kennedale will be advantageous to us,” he added.

In talking with Melissa defensive coordinator Nate Hemsley about the defense’s efforts and also what to expect going forward he noted, “Our next opponent (Paris) will run the ball off the edges. They will also use motions and shifts to try to gain an advantage at the point of attack. We just need to get aligned properly and each man does his job with an eye to discipline and effort.” Hemsley also added his thoughts of the Cardinal program, “Our program is moving forward every day. We just need to keep coaching and loving our kids every day. You couldn’t ask to be in a better place.” 

Melissa will face off in the Regional round of the Class 4A Division I playoffs against district counterpart Paris. The Wildcats are 8-4 on the season with two of those losses coming at the hands of Covid-19 Coronavirus protocols that forced Paris to forfeit two games. One of those games was to the Melissa Cardinals on September 25. 

In the past two years the two teams have exchanged victories with Melissa winning in 2019 by the score of 54-46 and Paris getting the 2018 victory 28-25. Both teams have been playoff contenders over the past several seasons and have a short, but intense rivalry. 

The Regional playoff contest is scheduled for Friday night, November 27 at Texas A&M Commerce, Ernest Hawkins Field with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 pm.