[By Anthony Hawthorne, Special to ETSN.fm]

GLEN ROSE -- It was a year ago to the day that the Waskom Wildcats walked off the field at Reliant Stadium in Houston, their season ending in disappointing fashion at the hands of Refugio in the state semifinals.

What a difference a year makes.

Dillon Benton’s late go-ahead touchdown run and a Wildcats defensive stand at the goal line propelled Waskom to its first-ever state championship game with a 25-21 victory over the Sonora Broncos at Glen Rose’s Tiger Stadium.

The Broncos finished an impressive postseason run with an 11-4 record on the season.

Waskom (14-1) will take on Newton, a 48-21 winner over Blanco, in the Class 3A Division II title game Thursday at 5 p.m. from AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Kevin Johnson led the way for the Wildcats, picking up 131 yards and two scores on just 12 carries. Benton added 94 yards on seven carries while Junebug Johnson picked up 50 yards on just four carries.

The Wildcats, trailing 21-6 at the half, came out of the break a different team. Needing a score on the opening possession of the third quarter, they dug deep into their bag of tricks -- not once, but twice.

Facing a fourth-and-4 at their own 43, the Wildcats used a fake punt with Junebug Johnson hitting quarterback Trace Carter for a gain of 21 yards to the Broncos' 36-yard line. A sack of Carter by Lionel DeLeon pushed Waskom to a fourth-and-15 at the 41.

The Wildcats went for it with another bit of trickery, with Benton taking the handoff and pitching to Kevin Johnson, who found Eric Stephens III open for a 34-yard gain to the 7-yard line. Johnson kept the next handoff, racing around the left side for a 7-yard score, cutting the deficit to 21-13.

Sonora struggled to move the ball on its next possession, something it had no problems doing in the first half.

The Broncos went for it on fourth-and-2 at Waskom’s 43-yard line, and quarterback Andres Acevedo lost the ball with Waskom’s Cullum Ditmore picking up the loose ball and returning it for a score. A penalty nullified the score, however, but the Wildcats had the ball and all the momentum.

A holding penalty on the Wildcats set them back on their next drive’s opening play, but a 14-yard carry from Kevin Johnson and a 6-yarder from Chan Amie set up another fourth-down play for the Wildcats.

Once again they converted, with Kevin Johnson hitting the edge and cutting back up the middle of the field for a 46-yard gain to the Broncos' 4-yard line. Carter found the end zone three plays later on a 1-yard keeper.

The two-point attempt was no good, leaving the Wildcats behind by a score of 21-19.

The score remained that way for the next 12 minutes.

The Waskom defense, torched for the majority of the first half, came alive in a big way after the break, giving up just 113 yards after halftime and shutting out a high-powered offense, lead by Acevedo and Brett Castillo.

“We made a couple of adjustments,” said Waskom coach Whitney Keeling of his halftime changes. “They had shown they weren’t going to throw the ball, we basically just dared them to. We brought two more into the box than they could block and our kids, they executed the game-plan to perfection."

Sonora’s next drive moved to the Waskom 34-yard line before consecutive big plays from Amie and Keileon Johnson turned the tide. Amie brought bruising fullback Elijah Cross down for a loss of three on third down, and Johnson sacked Acevedo on fourth-and-8, giving the Wildcats the ball with just under seven minutes remaining.

Waskom couldn’t take advantage, however. An incomplete pass on third down led to a timeout, after which the Wildcats decided to go for it. Junebug Johnson’s pass was picked off, and the Broncos looked poised to run the clock out.

The Wildcats defense had other plans, forcing a punt, which was downed at the 2-yard line with just 4:08 remaining. Needing to go 98 yards, the Wildcats chances looked bleak.

That’s where Benton came in.

A first down run by Benton was followed by a 10-yarder from Junebug Johnson to the 29-yard line, which set up the dramatic finish.

Benton took a second-down handoff up the middle, where he somehow broke through the line and spun away from a trio of tacklers, hitting the sideline where he raced to the end zone from 71 yards away, giving the Wildcats the 25-21 lead.

The two-point attempt was no good, leaving the Broncos 2:04 to regain the lead.

“What a run by Dillon (Benton),” Keeling said. “My goodness. He broke three or four tackles on that run. He was not going to be denied.”

Starting at their own 22-yard line, the Broncos used a bit of trickery of their own.

Following a loss of a yard on an Acevedo carry, the Broncos lined up a receiver next to the sideline uncovered, quickly hitting Castillo for 22 yards to near midfield. After a 5-yard loss for Acevedo, the Broncos inserted Hunter Hughes at quarterback.

It paid off as he hit Gabe Rollert for 23 yards on his first pass to the Waskom 25-yard line. His next three passes fell incomplete, and the Broncos faced fourth-and-10 with just 39 seconds remaining.

Hughes kept them alive, finding Rollert again, this time for 13 yards to the Wildcats' 12-yard line. Hughes hit Acevedo for 7 more, and following an offside penalty, the Broncos were at the 3-yard line with just 14 seconds remaining.

The Wildcats' defense rose up one final time, and on first-and-goal, Hughes rolled out but couldn’t find a receiver, scrambled and was taken down at the 2-yard line. The Broncos quickly lined back up and spiked the ball but the clock had expired, sending Waskom players and coaches running onto the field in celebration.

“Our kids are so resilient, they were not going to be denied,” said Keeling. “Our defense didn’t play their very best game, but they got the stop when it mattered. You can never take anything away from them, I’m so proud of these kids. It’s unbelievable.”

Just a year removed from a season in which the Wildcats came from seemingly out of nowhere to making it to the state semifinals unbeaten, they faced a season of increased pressure and expectations.

“You start out the year No. 1 and you lose your first ballgame,” said Keeling. “We had a team meeting when it was over with and we told them that wasn’t the end of the season. That wasn’t going to define us, and we were going to have to go out and battle each and every week. Our kids played extremely hard throughout the entire season and tonight was just an unbelievable game.”

Up next for the Wildcats, winners of 14 in a row, is an all East-Texas showdown with Newton.

“Newton has all the tradition, they’ve been there before,” said Keeling. “We’re going to have to go in and have a good game plan. Our kids are going to have to play as hard as they can and we’ll just let the cookies crumble where they may fall.”

Acevedo finished the night for the Broncos with 20 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns, just 5 of those yards coming in the second half. Castillo finished with 21 carries for 154 yards and a score, with just 28 of those yards coming after the break.

A dominant first half from the Broncos set up the second half heroics from the Wildcats.

The Broncos took the game's opening possession and wasted little time, using just six plays to move 76 yards. Acevedo took the game's opening carry 40 yards, Castillo added runs of 14 and 12 to move the ball to the Wildcats' 10. Acevedo finished the drive two plays later, punching it in from 4 yards out for an early 7-0 lead.

Waskom’s opening drive looked promising, as the Wildcats converted a pair of third downs to move inside the Broncos' 20. However, an 8-yard sack by Elijah Cross set them back and Kevin Johnson came up short on fourth-and-2 at the Broncos' 10.

The teams traded punts, and Sonora extended its lead early in the second quarter. Acevedo’s 17-yard carry moved the ball into Waskom territory and Castillo did the rest. The tailback took the next two carries for 22 yards and got into the end zone from 10 yards out for a 14-0 lead.

Waskom showed some life on the game's next possession.

Junebug Johnson gave the Wildcats good field position, taking the kickoff back 33 yards to midfield. He made another big play three plays later, facing fourth-and-5 he took a handoff and pitched it to Kevin Johnson, who used his speed to get around the right side and score from 33 yards out. The kick failed, putting the Wildcats behind 14-6.

Sonora responded in a huge way just before the half, chewing up five minutes of clock in the process. It was all Acevedo and Castillo again as the duo each carried the ball five times on the drive, with the quarterback getting his second score of the night from 5 yards away, pushing the lead to 21-6 just before the break.


Waskom 25, Sonora 21

Class 3A Division II Semifinal
At Tiger Stadium, Glen Rose

Waskom           0      6    13      6    --    25
Sonora              7    14      0      0    --    21

First Quarter
SON--Andres Acevedo 4 run (Hunter Hughes kick), 9:05.
Second Quarter
SON--Brett Castillo 10 run (Hughes kick), 8:03.
WAS--Kevin Johnson 33 run (kick failed), 5:44.
SON--Acevedo 5 run (Hughes kick), :45.
Third Quarter
WAS--Kevin Johnson 7 run (Jose Chavarria kick), 8:28.
WAS--Trace Carter 1 run (two-point failed), 2:02.
Fourth Quarter
WAS--Dillon Benton 71 run (two-point failed), 2:04.

                                        WAS                SON
First Downs                            9                    19
Total Yards                         349                  341
Rushes-Yards                40-285            52-265
Passing Yards                       64                   76
Comp.-Att.-Int.                  3-7-1              4-9-0
Punts-Avg.                      1-27.0             2-35.0
Fumbles-Lost                       2-0                  2-1
Penalties-Yards                   2-15                 1-5

RUSHING--Waskom, Kevin Johnson 12-131, Dillon Benton 7-94, Junebug Johnson 4-50, Chan Amie 2-12, Trace Carter 15-(-2). Sonora, Brett Castillo 22-157, Andres Acevedo 20-80, Elijah Cross 8-27, Hunter Hughes 1-2, Bryan Garcia 1-(-2).
PASSING--Waskom, Kevin Johnson 1-1-0--34, Junebug Johnson 1-3-1--21, Carter 1-3-0--9. Sonora, Hughes 2-6-0--43, Acevedo 2-3-0--33.
RECEIVING--Waskom, Eric Stephens III 1-34, Carter 1-21, Kevin Johnson 1-9. Sonora, Gabe Rollert 2-36, Castillo 1-22, Cross 1-11, Acevedo 1-7.