GILMER -- It's a Tuesday late in November and the lights still shine at Jeff Traylor Stadium.

This is a typical sight for the Buckeyes, one of the most heralded football programs in East Texas. Gilmer has won three state championships, all in the 21st century. That's not factoring in the multiple championship appearances and deep playoff runs in the past 20 seasons.

So, when the Buckeyes finished 4-6 in the regular season, it came as a shock. None of the players on their roster had been alive the last time Gilmer finished with a losing record in 1995.

Still, thanks to a 20-18 victory against Spring Hill in district, they made the playoffs. Facing unbeaten Sunnyvale in the first round, many expected an early exit. But after Tra Fluellen returned the opening kick for a touchdown, Gilmer knew that wouldn't be the case.

"We looked at the sidelines and some of their heads were down," running back Larry Montgomery said. "We knew we were in their head and we could win. Bran Webb had a tremendous game. We had been missing that all year and it helped a lot.”

Webb finished with 265 yards rushing and two touchdowns to lead the Buckeyes to a 38-24 victory. They followed that with a 24-14 victory against Fairfield in the second round. All of a sudden, what appeared to be a down year turned into a playoff run.

Matt Turner, the Buckeyes' coach, said he never felt especially worried about his team. There were plenty of reasons for the losses. Webb missed three games with injury. Fluellen missed two. Montgomery was out for the first half of the season.

The Buckeyes also played a tough schedule. Nine of the 10 teams they played in the regular season made the playoffs. Seven of those teams are still in the playoffs. Turner knew that playing tough teams would ready his team for what was to come. Even if it meant sacrificing a few victories early on.

(© Ruel Felipe,
Gilmer quarterback Mason Hurt (© Ruel Felipe,

"There’s no better way to get prepared than that way," Turner said. "We’ve had years where we don’t play as strong a schedule and you’re worried. You’re going to wonder, ‘How are we going to handle that the first time we see it?’ We did that for 12 weeks."

Luke Metzel, a senior captain and fullback, agrees with his coach that the tough schedule helped Gilmer in the long run. He added that losses allowed the players to grow closer as they worked together to figure out the problems.

"I think our bond has gotten so much stronger than at the beginning of the season," Metzel said. "It had to. You didn’t have a choice. The moment you break is the moment you lose everything. That’s not happening now.”

Gilmer knows exactly what it will get from its regional semifinal matchup. The Buckeyes (6-6) face district foe Pleasant Grove (10-2) at 7:30 p.m. in Allen.

In the first game this season, the Hawks won 14-0 in a rain-filled evening. Gilmer is hopefully that clearer conditions, as well as a healthier Webb and Fluellen, will lead to a better offensive outing.

(© Ruel Felipe,
Gilmer lost to Pleasant Grove in the regular season, 14-0. (© Ruel Felipe,

As for the defense, defensive tackle Raciel Orona, who leads the team with nine sacks, said the team feels ready.

“We’ve changed up the game plan from the first time," he said. "I think our defense will be more physical than their offense. Based on the execution we’ve had here in practice since the first week, I think it’ll be a good outcome.”

Regardless, the Buckeyes are excited to get a second shot at Pleasant Grove. Gilmer has lost two in a row to the Hawks after PG handed the Buckeyes their first home district loss since 2000 last season. There's no doubt they're capable, either.

“I’m ecstatic." Metzle said. They came here and held us to nothing. The year before that they beat us so that’s two times in a row. To have the opportunity to beat them in the playoffs, we’re very motivated for that. It’s not a lot of times you get to see a team that you’ve lost to and say, ‘Here we go again.’”

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