FORNEY -- Conner Pingleton dived into the end zone from one yard out with seven seconds left in the fourth quarter and lifted Celina to a 44-41 win against Gladewater in the area round of the Class 4A Division II playoffs Friday at Forney's City Bank Stadium.

Celina's quarterback thwarted the Bears' successful rally from 28 points down at halftime. He converted fourth-and-goal and pushed his eight-time state champion program into the regional semifinal round of competition for a third consecutive year.

Gladewater had faced a 34-6 deficit at the break. Senior safety Austin Hawley's 62-yard pick six with 2:12 left to play completed a comeback for the ages and put Celina right where the Bears wanted from the start.

"It's unfortunate we had to squeeze all that into two quarters instead of over four quarters," Gladewater coach John Berry said amid two teams experiencing the full array of human emotion. "You have to give Celina credit. They came ready to get started and we weren't ready to go early. That's all it really boils down to. What you saw in the second half, when our back is against the wall, you have to start a game like that at this level."

Gladewater fullback Isaiah Davis scored twice, including a 71-yard touchdown, in his final high school game. (Jim Frake, ETSN.fm)

The area-round game is difficult to put into words. Even more difficult to define.

Gladewater (8-3) will be haunted forever by five first-half punts, a fumble lost, a takeaway it could not convert into points, an 88-yard kickoff return touchdown allowed and 12 false start penalties toward 108 penalty yards.

On the other hand, East Texas' most physical mid-sized team created four second-half takeaways and scored the full seven points on four of five drives down the backstretch before Hawley gave the team a brief lead.

Celina (10-2) had an opportunity to deliver the knockout blow on its first possession of the second half.

It had deferred the opening kickoff to the Bears, won a three-and-out on defense and then began working its way to a 27-0 lead through the first quarter. When Isaiah Davis crashed in from three yards to get Gladewater on the board past the midway point of the second quarter, Celina answered right back first by blocking the point after kick and then by getting its 88-yard kickoff return touchdown from Andre Norman.

Celina drove just seven yards after receiving the second-half kick before blinking. It fumbled the ball away.

Darnell McKnight lumbered in from 17 yards a few moments later to lay the framework of any comeback attempt. But McKnight and company still needed a full meltdown from Celina to make it a game.

Surprise.

Celina fumbled the ball right back to the Bears after a Fernando Serrano touchback. McKnight rolled in from 31 yards two plays later for a more manageable 34-20 deficit.

Gladewater's defense got plowed for 67 yards Celina's next possession, but free safety Mycah Stephens broke up a sure touchdown on third-and-goal from the 8-yard line and forced a successful 25-yard field goal.

Bears offensive linemen Joden Jackson (54) and Justice Deroboam (51) and with tailback Darnell McKnight (25) open a hole for Davis' 71-yard touchdown sprint. (Jim Frake, ETSN.fm)

Davis broke loose for a 71-yard touchdown the next play from scrimmage, and suddenly it was a 37-27 score with 3:41 left in the third quarter.

Linebacker Bryston Oliver ended Celina's next drive with a pick at the opposing 30-yard line. McKnight got in for a 4-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter and made it a three-point game.

The Bears had a chance to go for the lead their next time out on offense after Celina overthrew an easy touchdown and punted into the end zone. Celina held strong on fourth-and-3 from its own 46-yard line and, in fact, forced an 11-yard loss with 3:02 left in the contest.

Hawley got his interception three plays later for a 41-37 lead.

"Give our kids some credit," Berry said. "I challenged them at halftime. 'Start one whack at a time and just keep coming at them.' They did, so we're real proud. They really showed what their true character was. Unfortunately, we didn't show the character of our football team for all four quarters."

With that, Berry let out an exhausted laugh.

Celina started its final drive at its own 34-yard line and with all three timeouts in hand. It was in the red zone two plays later.

Pingleton connected with Christian Rivas for a short gain to start the defining drive and Rivas lateralled to John Franklin for what turned into a 45-yard gain on the play. Franklin got down to the Bears' 14-yard line the next snap, and there was still more than 1:30 to play.

The next four plays were a power struggle that cost Celina all three of its timeouts. Linebacker Michael Batchelor put an exclamation point on the defensive recovery with a 2-yard tackle for loss on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line.

With no timeouts left, Franklin got four yards as the clock rolled under 30 seconds. Pingleton dived in the next play for the win.

Gladewater opted to make the ensuing kickoff return its final play. The return man was forced to take the ball in front of the end zone, hesitated to see where the blocks were forming, advanced the ball to the 19-yard line and got caught.

Celina will face Pleasant Grove in the next round of the playoffs, the Region II semifinal round. Pleasant Grove handed Gladewater just its second loss of the year two weeks ago.

Eighteen seniors played their final career games for Gladewater. They never missed the playoffs and reached the 4A Division II regional championship round twice during their time with the program, whether they were on varsity from the get-go or contributing at the sub-varsity level.

"Four consecutive years of qualifying for the playoffs," Berry said, his eyes brightening. "You look back at Gladewater football, it's been a while since we've gone four straight years in the playoffs. Darnell came up as a freshman. (Cameron) Callaway Jr. played a couple of playoff games as a freshman. So did Hawley. The whole senior class, they've been key. This is a good football team led by a really good senior group."

Conversation then turned to next season.

Gladewater running back Darnell McKnight avoids a tackle and rolls off-tackle for a 4-yard touchdown. That made it a 37-34 early in the fourth quarter. (Jim Frake, ETSN.fm)

Celina 44, Gladewater 41

Class 4A Division II Area Round Playoff Game
At City Bank Stadium, Forney

Celina                    27     7         3        7    --      44
Gladewater            0       6       21       14    --     41

First Quarter
CEL--Ismael Ortiz 2 run (Eduardo Paulino kick), 9:07
CEL--John Franklin 28 pass from Conner Pingleton (Paulino kick), 5:36
CEL--Frankln 6 4un (Paulino kick), 4:40
CEL--Caleb Elliott 7 pass from Pingleton (kick failed), :38
Second Quarter
GLA--Isaiah Davis 3 run (Fernando Serrano kick), 4:08
CEL--Andre Norman 88 kickoff return (Paulino kick), 3:56
Third Quarter
GLA--Darnell McKnight 17 run (Serrano kick), 8:55
GLA--Davis 31 run (Serrano kick), 7:57
CEL--Paulino 25 field goal, 3:52
GLA--Davis 71 run (Serrano kick), 3:41
Fourth Quarter
GLA--McKnight 4 run (Serrano kick), 11:56
GLA--Austin Hawley 62 interception return (Serrano kick), 2:12
CEL--Pingleton 1 run (Paulino kick), :07

                                         CEL                GLA
First Downs                       17                    9
Total Yards                       319                 272
Rushes-Yards              54-181               49-272
Passing Yards                  138                    0
Comp.-Att.-Int.              9-17-3               0-1-0
Punts-Avg.                     2-50.5             5-29.4
Fumbles-Lost                    5-3                  3-1
Penalties-Yards                5-45               16-108

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING--Celina, John Franklin 17-85, Conner Pingleton 18-57, Ismael Ortiz 16-25, Christian Rivas 2-18, TEAM 1-(-4). Gladewater, Isaiah Davis 22-143, Darnell McKnight 22-109, Cameron Callaway Jr. 5-20.
PASSING--Celina, Pingleton 9-17-3--138. Gladewater, Callaway 0-1-0--0.
RECEIVING--Celina, Franklin 4-86, Rivas 2-29, Major Martin 1-12, Caleb Elliott 1-7, Ortiz 1-7.