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James Albritton/The Community News Sophomore running back Johnathan Gray takes the handoff from sophomore QB Matthew Bishop in Saturday's come-from-behind victory in the 4A State Semifinal game against the Denison Yellow Jackets. The Bearcats won the game 40-28 and will now face Brenham in the State Championship next Saturday.
By Tony Eierdam
After winning a state championship in 1998, the Aledo Bearcats had reached the state semifinals five times - including three out of the past four years - only to to be disappointed with crushing defeats.
And late in the first quarter in their Class 4A, Division II semifinal contest against Denison Saturday afternoon at Collins Stadium in Denton, it looked like another year of disppointment after Denison took a 21-7 lead after an interception return.
But the Bearcats came back and scored on their next drive and reached the end zone once again before the half ended to tie the game, and in the second half steam-rolled Denison on their way to a 40-28 victory that puts Aledo in the state championship game for the second time under head coach Tim Buchanan and the first time since the school moved up to Class 4A.
The Bearcats (14-1) will play Brenham at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, at Royal Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Texas for the Class 4A, Division II state championship.
"The way we were down (Denison scored two of its first three touchdowns on a short field after recovering an onside kick and on an interception return), it didn't concern us because it wasn't like they drove the ball 80 yards on us twice," Buchanan said. "We did a better job after that of getting pressure on their quarterback.
"Defensively, we changed up our front line a little bit, and our offense helped by staying on the field for long drives which kept their offense off the field."
Buchanan was asked following the contest if he thought the team could make it to state with so many sophomores in the starting lineup.
"Every year, our goal is to win a state championship," he said. "After we lost to Weatherford, we weren't too sure. We made some corrections, and most of them were just mental corrections. We got mentally and physically tougher on both offense and defense. We knew we had a chance after that. We knew we had good football players."
Senior tight end Forrest Cook said the team never panicked when the Bearcats were down by two touchdowns.
"It was all about heart today," he said. "We just got together (after Denison's third touchdown) and said 'Boys, we have to do this,' and we just refocused, got after it and just played harder.
"We are going to state, and we are going down there to win it."
Within the first minute of the game, it appeared the Bearcats may have been on their way to a blowout win. Cameron Cunningham took the opening kickoff at his own 15-yard line and raced 67 yards down the right sideline to the Denison 18.
Sophomore running back Johnathan Gray carried for 14 yards on the next play to set up a first and goal at the 4. On the next play, Gray crashed over the goal line off left tackle, and senior kicker Andrew Kocurek booted the extra point as Aledo took a quick 7-0 lead.
After the teams traded punts, Denison put together a seven-play, 55-yard drive that was finished off by a 26-yard touchdown run off right tackle by D.J. Jones, and Dalton Hestand added the extra point to tie the game.
Denison surprised Aledo on the ensuing kickoff as Hestand booted a sneaky onside kick he recovered at the Bearcats' 49. Five plays later, Jones bullied his way to the end zone on a two-yard run as the Yellow Jackets led 14-7.
Two plays into Aledo's next drive, sophomore quarterback Matthew Bishop's attempted screen pass to Gray was intercepted by Denison defensive end Aaron Morrison, who cruised 27 yards untouched to the end zone which stunned AHS and increased the Denison lead to 21-7.
Bishop, however, did not panic, and on the Bearcats' ensuing possession moved the team 61 yards on 14 plays (with an assist from senior quarterback Trey Ozee, whose two-yard sneak converted a crucial fourth-and-one play to keep the drive alive) to the touchdown that made it a one-score game.
Bishop capped the drive on an 11-yard scramble to paydirt. Bishop was looking to pass when he rolled to his right. Finding nothing but Yellow Jackets in front of him, he pump-faked a pass and hustled toward the middle of the field before pulling down the ball and sprinting up field, breaking two tackles as he dove into the end zone with 10:56 left in the half.
Kocurek's PAT cut the Denison lead to 21-14.
The Bearcats' defense quickly got the ball back into the hands of the offense as AHS held the Yellow Jackets on a third-and-one play as Denison was forced to punt.
The Bearcats moved the ball to the Denison five-yard line, but on fourth down threw an incomplete pass. The drive, however, was not a failure as AHS gained critical field positon, which would lead to the tying score.
The Bearcats' defense again held strong and forced a punt. Starting at his own 39, Bishop completed a pass to sophomore receiver Michael Mann for 22 yards, then found wide receiver Stetson Stockard for 10 yards to bring the pigskin to the Denison 29. But four plays later, Aledo was faced with a third and 14 from the Yellow Jackets' 22.
Bishop went to Stockard again, and the senior made a diving catch at the Denison 5 to keep the drive alive. On the next play, Gray crashed over the right side and broke two tackles on his way to a five-yard score with 43 seconds remaining in the half. Kocurek's PAT was true as the game was tied at the break, 21-21.
Denison received the second-half kickoff, but had to punt the ball away after five plays.
Bishop and Gray accounted for all the yardage in the seven-play, 50-yard drive that gave the Bearcats a lead they would not relinquish. Bishop began the drive with a keeper for 21 yards, and Gray caught a pass from Bishop on the next play for 10 yards.
However, after three running plays netted seven yards, Aledo was faced with a fourth and three from the Denison 12. Gray got the call, and he bolted over left tackle for nine yards for a first down to the Yellow Jackets' 3.
On the next play, Gray smashed over the goal line off left tackle, and Kocurek's kick gave the Bearcats a 28-21 lead.
The next two Denison drives ended in failure. Cunningham picked off a Taylor pass, and the next Yellow Jackets' drive ended on a three-and-out punt.
Following the punt, Aledo put together a seven-play, 40-yard drive that was capped on a one-yard quarterback sneak by Ozee. Kocurek's PAT attempt was wide as the Bearcats led 34-21 with 5:21 left in the game.
Denison came back with its air attack as Taylor completed three consecutive passes, the last one a 24-yard TD strike to receiver Jimmay Mundine. Hestand was true on the conversion kick as Denison cut the Bearcats' lead to 34-28 with 4:00 remaining in the contest.
Denison, with three timeouts remaining, decided to kick the ball away on the ensuing kickoff. Three plays into the drive, Gray took a handoff from Ozee, broke the up-front pressure and sprinted off right tackle 55 yards untouched and into the end zone with 3:14 remaining to play. The conversion run failed as Aledo led 40-28.
Taylor tried to rally the Yellow Jackets as he completed three passes and ran for a first down. But Taylor was sacked on second down by senior defensive end Devin Davis, and he followed with a pair of incomplete passes as Aledo took over on downs.
The Bearcats ran out the clock to preserve the victory and secure the school's first state championship game appearance since winning it all in 1998.
One of Aledo's starting sophomores, Gray, said it best as the clock ticked off the final seconds of the game.
"We are going to Austin, baby!" he exclaimed. "We got down early, but we just kept playing hard. It feels great to go to state!"