Gladewater’s Surprising Playoff Run Fueled By Young, Deep + Talented Backfield
[Note: Gladewater's Class 3A D-II Region II final vs. Argyle has been moved to 6:30 p.m. Monday at Midway's Panther Stadium in Hewitt.]
GLADEWATER -- The high school football playoffs began three weeks ago, but they came one week earlier for the Gladewater Bears. And it wasn't as simple as win-or-go-home.
Gladewater entered the final week of the regular season with its postseason hopes dependent upon a couple of variables. The Bears could make the playoffs with a win over Henderson and a Spring Hill victory over favored Bullard. If Bullard won, Gladewater would've needed to beat Henderson by at least 14 points to advance.
Spring Hill did its part by handing Bullard a 35-7 defeat, but Gladewater found itself trailing Henderson 42-28 midway through the fourth quarter.
"People started leaving the stadium and thought we were going to lose," said Gladewater sophomore fullback/tight end Justice Centers. "But we never gave up. We kept going where our mind told us to go."
And that was the end zone, apparently. Gladewater scored three touchdowns in the game's final five minutes to clinch its first playoff berth since 2009. The Bears (7-6) haven't looked back, winning their first three playoff games since 2001 ahead of Friday's Class 3A Division II Region II championship game against unbeaten and top-ranked Argyle (13-0).
"(Head coach Jerrod Baugh) always said 'if we handle our business, you never know what can happen when you get to the playoffs,'" said junior running back James Reese, the team's leading rusher. "That's what we did; we had to handle our business, we had no other choice. We were handed a second chance and we took it and ran with it."
And running is what Gladewater does best. The Bears are averaging almost 290 yards per game on the ground for the season, but during its current four-game winning streak Gladewater is putting up 367 yards on average. In last week's 24-17 regional-semifinal victory over previously-unbeaten Gainesville, Gladewater attempted just six passes, ran the ball 64 times and had possession for 33 of 48 minutes.
"Our defense doesn't have to be on the field very long," said junior running back Daryl Polk. "We just eat the clock, making it easier for our defense to shut down the other team's offense."
And Gladewater did just that last week, limiting Gainesville to just 106 total yards -- 54 rushing -- and seven first downs.
The Bears' grind-it-out approach on offense is made possible by its deep and versatile backfield, which includes three juniors, two sophomores and one freshman.
Reese is the team's leading rusher with 1,352 yards and 10 touchdowns, but the supporting cast has been just as effective of late. Centers is second on the team with 875 yards and nine touchdowns, but leads the team in both receptions and receiving yards. Freshman Darnell McKnight was forced into action midseason because of injuries and has rushed for 244 yards and four touchdowns in the playoffs. Polk and sophomore Marcello Jackson have also contributed mightily to the Bears' rushing attack.
Even junior Daylon Mack, a 6-1, 310-pound defensive tackle committed to Texas A&M, has emerged as a force in Gladewater's offensive backfield. Mack, one of the nation's top recruits in the 2015 class, rushed for a career-best 178 yards and three touchdowns in the Bears' 34-33 area-round win over Atlanta. And in last week's victory over Gainesville, he carried the ball 15 times for 68 yards and a touchdown while converting four the Bears' seven fourth-down conversions and six of their eight third-down plays.
"He's like a tank, you can't stop him," Centers said of Mack.
While Mack is more often noticed for his play along the defensive line, where he has racked up 91 tackles (33 for loss), five sacks and eight forced fumbles, the agile big man enjoys the other side of the ball as well.
"Oh, yeah I definitely enjoy it," he said. "I'm smiling every time I get the ball."
When he's not taking the handoff, Mack often serves as the lead-blocker for Reese on short-yardage plays.
"Once I get the ball I'm looking upfield for a hole and it's wherever he is," Reese said of his 310-pound fullback. "Defenders either try to dodge him or they just go ahead and fall on the ground. They know he's coming and they know he's going to hit them hard."
Baugh believes all of the backs feed off each other.
"I'm just as confident in one of them as I am the other," he said. "The best thing about it is they all pull for each other. None of them are upset whenever the other one is out there. In fact, I think it puts the competition level at the running back spot … if one of them busts a long run, then the next one is trying to do that the next time he gets out there. It's been real good for us."
The competition among the Gladewater ball carriers isn't limited just to game nights.
"Even in practice, we see who can get the most yards, who can get the most touchdowns, who's going to run more people over, who's going to juke more people," Centers said.
Fortunately for Baugh, a former assistant under Longview head coach John King, he'll have every single one of them back for at least one more season.
"It's a big deal," Baugh said. "We hadn't been able to experience it here, but I've got quite a few coaches that came with me from Longview, and one of our big deals over there was the more big games you play in the playoffs the more experienced your younger kids get. And you just can't replace game-time experience.
"That's one of the biggest things that we're going to be able to get out of this -- those young kids have now experienced what it takes to do that and how you prepare. Every day is a new experience for these kids and I'd forgotten, after all those years at Longview, how you kinda take those things for granted -- the kids know what you're supposed to do when you're fixing to load up on a chartered bus and go somewhere. But it's all been brand-new for these kids, and you have to get by those things and they've handled it real well. But those are some things we won't have to go through next year."
Gladewater's run to the fourth round of the playoffs has reinvigorated a community rich in football tradition. From 1983-1990, coach Jack Murphy's Gladewater teams were among the state's best at the 3A level. During that eight-year stretch, the Bears went 91-15-1 with six double-digit win seasons. Gladewater, however, has only had one 10-plus win season since.
"I know it stirs up a lot of memories from a lot of people and it's been nice to listen to some of the old playoff stories," Baugh said. "But it's been nice for our kids to make some of their own memories and to build some new ones. That way you don't have to look back and think about 2001 or 1986, all those years that everybody likes to talk about. You won't have to look that far anymore."
Few people outside of Gladewater are giving the Bears much of a chance against Argyle this week, especially after the Eagles eliminated Gladewater's district rival Gilmer from the playoffs last Friday -- the same Gilmer team that handed the Bears a 52-14 defeat in the 16-3A opener on Sept. 27.
"Getting to the playoffs, we're achieving everything that the coaches said was possible," Mack said. "We really have 100-percent faith in them right now, and now the city's behind us. We've been the underdog in every game this year; we weren't even supposed to make the playoffs. It's nothing new for us."
Gladewater and Argyle are scheduled for a 6 p.m. kickoff Friday from Dallas' Kincaide Stadium. The winner will play the winner between Graham (13-0) and Shallowater (13-0) next week in the state-semifinal round.