LionNationOnline

Filed under Sports

Blindsided

Lions dig deep to overcome 18-point deficit and bring home the TAPPS Division I Football Championship defeating St. Pius X, 42-41.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Moms in blue and gold scarves huddled together in the stands, hands over their faces. Seniors in the stands gripped brightly colored signs with white knuckles and tense faces. People at home watching the game online crossed their fingers and held their breath. Twitter users refreshed their apps constantly, waiting to hear some good news. Players nervously bounced on their toes in anticipation for the second half of the football game.

The Lions were down by five as the half started. Little did they know that the first ten minutes of the third quarter were going to be even rougher than the first half.

This was the most important game of the season. This was the State Championship. Despite the combined physical efforts and mental fortitude of the Varsity Football team, St. Pius X stretched the lead to 18 points in the last two minutes of the third quarter. These last two minutes would come to define the rest of the game and ultimately the end of the Lions’ hard-fought season.

Two late touchdowns in the third quarter shifted the momentum, the crowd let out a collective breath, and the Lions scored 19 unanswered points in the last 17 minutes of the game, beating the St. Pius X Panthers, 42-41. For the fifth time in school history, the Lions reigned as State Champions.

The First Half

photo by Tyler Wright
Duke commit Senior Jeremiah Lewis crosses the goal line in the first half to put the Lions up 10-7.

Hundreds of fans welcomed the Lions and Panthers to the field in Waco, Texas, as the December sun set beyond Midway Panther Stadium. The lights snapped on, the Lions received the kick, and the Division I TAPPS State Championship game was underway.

The two teams went back and forth for the first half of the game. The Panthers pounced first. Led by Texas A&M commit quarterback Grant Gunnell, an 80-yard touchdown put St. Pius up 0-7. The Lions answered with an early field goal, then Senior quarterback Wiley Green connected with Senior Jeremiah Lewis for a touchdown to give the Lions a brief lead in the second quarter, 10-7.

“Jeremiah played the entire game on a sprained ankle and still caught that touchdown,” said Head Coach Chris Cunningham.

“It is not fun knowing you are not 100 percent. In a sense, I felt like I was letting my team down with my physical play,” said Lewis.

By halftime, St. Pius had scored three more touchdowns while the Lions scored on a 10-yard run by Ricky Baker and two field goals from Junior Peyton Tollerson. They went into the locker room down by five points, 23-28

Keep Swinging

Before the start of the season, the team assembled to discuss goals and themes for the year. The players were inspired by Coach Cunningham’s words from his experience as a construction worker. He shared with the coaches and players a time when his sledgehammer appeared to do nothing as he pounded away at the largest rock he had ever seen.

photo by Tyler Wright
Senior Quarterback Wiley Green looks for an open receiver early in the State Championship game against St. Pius X.

“The boss came by and told me to keep swinging, because at any moment the damage on the inside of the rock would become too great, and it would crumble under the immense pressure,” Coach Cunningham said. The team adopted the motto “Keep Swinging” and kept a sledgehammer on the sidelines during the game as a reminder.

This motto rang through the ears of the players during halftime as they faced what seemed to be the toughest rock they had seen this season—the St. Pius Panthers.

Junior linebacker Matthew O’Reilly said, “During halftime, we realized that every touchdown they scored was on us. As a team, we knew we could hold them if we played our game the way coach told us.”

The Second Half

The second half started slowly for both teams, then an onslaught of stellar plays from St. Pius’ star quarterback, including a 14-yard run for a touchdown, sparked the Panthers. A Lion fumble resulted in yet another touchdown for St. Pius. The lead grew from a doable five points to a mountain of 18, 23-41. By the final two minutes of the third quarter, things were looking pretty grim for the Lions.

The Dark-Alley Mentality

Through the long days of interminable practice, the struggle of losing the first game of the season, injuries and more, the Lions were brought together, and a mindset was ingrained in each player: the dark-alley mentality.

Coach Cunningham said, “Imagine you’re walking downtown, and you’ve got to pass through a shady alleyway. You know there are bad things and people waiting for you there. Who are you going to take with you when you have to walk through it?” That was the mentality.

The players knew that they had each other, and they would face this adversity head on, as a team.

When the scoreboard showed an 18-point deficit, and the possibility of a State Championship win seemed to be out of reach, the Lions were ready. Each player knew that, in this dark alley, his teammates had his back, and that they would emerge from the darkness.

“We never got to a point where we thought it couldn’t be done. We believed in our plan and each other,” said Defensive Coordinator Chris Jones.

Green said, “When we were down I knew that God had a plan for me, the team, and the game. I told my guys exactly what I told myself at the beginning of the game, ‘It’s a football game. Let’s go out there and just play PCA football.’”

On the next drive, a short pass and then an incomplete pass brought the Lions to a third down at the St. Pius 26-yard line. It all came down to Junior running back Josh Cunningham.

The Coach’s Son

photo by Tyler Wright
Junior Josh Cunningham escapes the defense for a 26-yard run and a score for the Lions.

Josh, the coach’s son, has lived and breathed football since birth. He thoroughly knew the high of winning and disappointment of losing a State Championship.

Josh said, “To have my dad on the field with me is a very special experience. Every time I play on that field, I play for him.”

Coach Cunningham said, “What makes having Josh on the team for a State game so special is everything we go through together during the journey to that game. It’s so much time and a lot of work, but as a father and a coach, I couldn’t be prouder of a son or a player than I am of Josh.”

No other player could have been more prepared for the play at hand. Josh said, “We were close, and I was thinking that we really need this touchdown. I told myself to run as hard as I could to the end zone, because I knew how important that moment was for the team.”

Breathe in, breathe out. Focus. He ran through the play one last time in his mind, just to be sure he got it right. The quarterback called for the snap, and the play began with the Lions looking for that break that would give them a chance at redemption.

Josh took the ball, and for a split second saw his opening on the field and went for it, running 26 yards for the much-needed touchdown to start the comeback, 30-41. The Lions would not be intimidated.

Blindsided

photo by Tyler Wright
As time ticks away, Junior David Martin strips the ball from St. Pius giving possession back to the Lions.

In those final 17 minutes, the Lions defense smothered St. Pius. Senior defensive end Pierce DeVaughn made a critical sack, forcing the punt that would lead to the winning touchdown.

“I was thinking about all the work we had put in as a team, and that we deserved to win. I knew that since it was third and long, I needed to make a play happen,” said DeVaughn.

Blindsided by the Lions, in their final four possessions St. Pius punted twice, fumbled and missed a field goal. They only made it past midfield once and were tackled for a loss twice.

After that, the energy in Midway Panther Stadium was palpable. Signs with phrases such as “Wiley Green is my Hero” and “The Duke Way, #6 Jeremiah Lewis” waved with vigor and emotion. Cowbells rang out in their distinct twang and mixed with the screams and cheers. As the offense marched down the field, the student section followed in the stands. The Lions scored again on a pass to Junior Solomon Turner. And again on another 11-yard run by Cunningham. The Panthers, on the other hand, never scored again.

Champions

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Lions ran triumphantly down the field. The fans at the game spent the next few minutes furiously waving their blue and gold and sharing their victory on every social media platform imaginable. The Lions again stood atop TAPPS Division I, bringing home the State Championship, 42-41.

Green said, “When the final buzzer sounded, I couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. I was in shock. I just wanted to celebrate with my teammates and coaches.”

The buzzer signaled a great cheer from the crowd, tired elation from the team and a flood of Snapchat stories and tweets about the newly crowned State Champions.

“I was so relieved when we won. If we had lost, I would have felt I let the team, especially the Seniors, down,” said O’Reilly.

Their Last Time

photo by Tyler Wright
Four-year starter Senior Jake Kell embraces Junior Josh Cunningham after his 11-yard run for what would be the game winning score in the middle of the fourth quarter.

For those Seniors, it would be their final game as a Lion. Four-year Varsity player Senior Jake Kell was the only team member to have started on both the 2015 and 2017 State Championship teams. His experience in not only his position at center, but in his ability to rally the team as a leader, proved vital.

He said, “I got to be a part of four amazing teams and play in three State Championships, which most people never do.”

Another Senior, Lineman Harrison Haynes, would never have dreamed this moment three years ago. During football practice as a Freshman at his former school, Haynes felt light-headed and his vision began to blur. “I felt so weak, not because of something I could control, but because of something I couldn’t,” said Haynes. He stumbled then collapsed right during practice.

At the hospital, Haynes learned he was diabetic and had come near death that day. The thought of playing football and managing diabetes overwhelmed him. Fast forward to Senior year, and Harrison dominated diabetes, pushing through it to win a State title as a starting offensive lineman.

History Makers

“This was one of the closest teams we have ever had,” said Coach Cunningham. He said, “Every one of these players came through the fire of offseason training, summer workouts and brutal August practices to become one of the best teams in the history of our school.”

“I believe the story of the game was our team never giving up no matter what the circumstances of the game looked like. When we were down by 18 points with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, there wasn’t a player or coach who didn’t believe that we could come back and win the game. You could see it in the players’ eyes and feel it on the sideline. They were not going to stop fighting for each other,” said Coach Cunningham.

The Varsity Football team never did stop fighting. It took faith in God’s plan, the game plan and each other to pull off that 18-point comeback. “What we accomplished in that game had everything to do with the fact that every person on this team from the coaches, to the players, to the trainers filled their roles like champions,” said Coach Cunningham. And, in the end, championships belong to champions.

photo by Tyler Wright
Fighting from an 18-point deficit, the Lions celebrate after defeating St. Pius X for the TAPPS Division I State Championship, 42-41.

Navigate Right
Navigate Left
  • Blindsided

    Sports

    Causing a Racket

  • Blindsided

    Lion of the Week

    Meet Hannah Stoutmire

  • Blindsided

    Lion of the Week

    Meet Sam Boese

  • Blindsided

    Sports

    Lucky Number Seven

  • Blindsided

    Lion of the Week

    Meet Payton Hicks

  • Blindsided

    Lion of the Week

    Meet Colton Smith

  • Blindsided

    Lion of the Week

    Meet Josh Cunningham

  • Blindsided

    Sports

    Playing for Each Other

  • Blindsided

    Sports

    Mile after Mile

  • Blindsided

    Lion of the Week

    Meet Caroline Stogner