By Mike Tenney and Landan Kuhlmann
The time is now for St. Pius X – no looking back. The Panthers will play for the school’s first TAPPS Division I 6A state championship in 10 years Saturday night when they face the Prestonwood Plano Lions at 7 p.m. at Midway Panther High Stadium in Waco.
The Panthers, led by head coach Stephen Hill, advanced to Saturday’s TAPPS D-1 finals when they jolted defending state champion and previously undefeated Dallas Bishop Lynch, 34-15, in Georgetown to earn its spot in Saturday’s championship. Prestonwood survived by outlasting Tyler All Saints, 55-48, in the other Division 1 state semifinal.
“It’s just been an unbelievably special run for us. The guys I have now, they were freshmen when I came here,” Hill said. “To get where we are in four years is pretty special. We had a plan, and that plan fell short a couple years, but to have the kids who have put in all that hard work and effort get the chance to play for a ring, is really special.”
Linebacker Bruno Forestieri and wide receiver Jacob Jefferson echoed their head coach after having vanquished Antonian Prep and recent nemesis Bishop Dunne before taking out the Friars last week.
“We’ve been working so hard all these years, getting to the state semis year after year and getting bounced – to get to the state championship is a really big accomplishment, and everyone feels really great about it. Now we’ve just got to finish the job,” said Forestieri, who leads SPX with 68 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss. “If you said there wasn’t [any extra motivation for Bishop Dunne], you’d be lying; but we just treated it like any other game and just did what we do best.”
“It feels like we finally got that chip off our shoulder, that luggage off our back,” Jefferson added. “Now that we’ve gotten over that, we’re rolling. It feels great to get over that hump and get here onto this big stage. [Bishop Dunne] got us the last two years, and that really sparked a passion in us – that’s the one we wanted, so just getting that done, I knew it was going to be a good roll for us the rest of the season.”
The Friars took a 2-0 lead before the Panthers showed the versatility they have on offense with their first two touchdowns of the game. The initial one came on a 98-yard drive after a Dunne punt backed St. Pius X up to its own 2-yard line. Junior tailback Kaleb Ducros ran for the first of his three touchdowns to complete the long march. On their next possession, they showed that always lying-in-wait big -play capability when quarterback Grant Gunnell threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to star wide receiver Jalen Curry, who now has nearly 120 catches on the season. Two extra-point kicks made it 14-2 before the Friars closed the gap to 14-9 with a touchdown just before halftime.
The Panthers put the game away in the third quarter with two more scores that built their lead to 28-9. First, Gunnell threw a 39-yard score to Jefferson, who has shown no ill effect from an injury that caused him to miss the latter part of the regular season. Then, Ducros completed their second drive of the second half with a nine-yard scoring run that gave them a comfortable 28-9 advantage. After that, the teams traded touchdowns with Ducros running for his third score of the game. St. Pius X enters Saturday’s clash scoring more than 51 points per game, with Gunnell slinging it to a multitude of weapons.
“Everybody knows their roles, and we play extremely well together. What I don’t have, they have, and I don’t try to get what they have,” said Jefferson, who has caught 70 passes for 1,090 yards and 17 touchdowns heading into Saturday. “I just know what I do best, and they all do the same thing. Everybody just meshes together to help get us on a roll like that.”
Much like St. Pius X, Prestonwood Plano is a very explosive team offensively, averaging over 40 points a game this year. The Lions are also solid defensively, allowing just under 16 points per game. In the Lions’ win over Tyler All-Saints, senior quarterback Wiley Green threw three touchdowns passes, giving him 44 for the season. That is an outstanding number, but he is still a dozen behind St. Pius X quarterback Grant Gunnell, who threw two more against Bishop Dunne and now has an amazing 56 for the season. Prestonwood also avenged one of its two losses from this year as they fell to All Saints 61-50 in the first game of the year back in early September.
Green has thrown for 3,360 yards, and Ricky Baker and Jeremiah Lewis are his go-to guys in the passing department. Baker has caught 59 passes for nearly 900 yards and 13 touchdowns while Lewis has pulled in 40 receptions for 919 yards and 14 scores while averaging just under 23 yards per reception. The Lions round out that offensive attack with running back Timothy Taylor, who has rushed for over 1,100 yards this season.
However, while the offense continues to get the attention with their seven Division I prospects, St. Pius X’s defense played an outstanding game against Bishop Dunne – with a late interception sealing the win – in the quarterfinals, and followed up that effort by keeping Bishop Lynch to just 15 points and just over 300 yards of total offense. The Panthers’ defense has been stout all season, allowing just 22 points per game. But they’ll face perhaps their stiffest test this weekend.
“It’s been all about the leadership, people doing their job and being where they’re supposed to be instead of doing other people’s jobs, and just trying to execute our game plan each week,” Forestieri said on what’s keyed the Panthers’ defensive efforts all season.
St. Pius X is going for its 13th state football championship in school history, and first since 2007.
“Anyone who works here will tell you St. Pius is a close-knit community, and it’s been tenfold with the alumni that have reached out and the support they’ve given,” Hill said. “It’s been a very special week to see the community come together all towards one common goal, no matter who they are. Everybody’s pulling together here, so if we win it’s not just the football team winning, it’s a championship for our school, and to accomplish that would be quite a feat.”
Season in Review
St. Pius X has had what many consider a season to remember up to this juncture, but for those in that locker room, it is never enough. Here’s a look at how they’ve climbed the mountain:
St. Pius X 56, Sealy 13
The Panthers began their march towards history with a dominating performance against the Tigers, using a 21-point second quarter to take control and pulling away in the second half as heralded signal-caller Grant Gunnell began his 2017 campaign much the way he ended 2016. The Texas A&M commit connected on 31 of his 41 throws for a staggering 579 yards and seven touchdown throws in a remarkable aerial display. Four different Panthers (Jacob Jefferson, Boobie Curry, Kaleb Ducros and Kaleb Delphin) wound up with at least 100 receiving yards, while Ducros and Delphin also both contributed 75 yards on the ground. Defensively, the Panthers held Sealy to just 292 yards of total offense as Colby Bonds (9 tackles), Bruno Forestieri (8 tackles) and Coby Roberts (5 tackles, 1 TFL, interception) stymied the Tigers all night.
St. Pius X 58, College Station 41
In a game which boasts a final score not indicative of it’s competitiveness, the Panthers again blew this one open in the second quarter, scoring 21 unanswered points in the second stanza to take a commanding 31-7 halftime lead before holding off a furious second-half Cougar rally. Gunnell again sliced up an opposing defense, throwing for 494 yards and six touchdowns, with favorite targets Jefferson (215 yards, 4 TD’s) and Curry (135 yards, 1 TD) doing the brunt of the damage. On the other side, the Panthers bent but didn’t break in the second half thanks to senior safety Ricky Lester (10 tackles) and Forestieri (14 tackles). Lester, Jarvis Johnson and Coby Roberts each also tallied interceptions to stop the Cougars in their tracks.
St. Pius X 69, Chavez 14
A seemingly normal September night turned into one to remember for anyone in attendance. SPX raced out to a 35-0 lead after just one quarter of play, and essentially cruised home for their third consecutive victory to open the season. While Gunnell (503 yards with a state record-tying 10 touchdowns), Jefferson (161 yards, 5 TD’s) and Curry (171 yards, 2 touchdowns) inflicted their usual damage, on this night the defense was a story as well. Senior Colby Bonds was a monster, totaling 14 tackles and three of the team’s six sacks on the night, while Forestieri (12 tackles), junior nose tackle Thommy Good (7 tackles 2 TFL) and Lester (6 tackles, 1 INT) chipped in to steal the show on a historic night.
St. Pius X 49, Rudder 0
In case the first few instances hadn’t done the trick, the Panthers continued to display their prowess as more than an offensive juggernaut as they notched their first shutout of 2017, and their third instance of holding opponents to 14 points or fewer. Forestieri (11 tackles, 5 TFL) wreaked havoc on the Rudder offensive line all night, and Lester tallied his third interception in four games as the Panthers held the Rangers to a paltry 164 yards of total offense. And with so many three and outs, it was only a matter of time before the Panther offense laid waste to the Ranger defense, and they did so efficiently as ever, amassing 801 total yards against a helpless Ranger defense.
All Saints Catholic 49, St. Pius X 37
Here, the Panthers hit their first snag of 2017, as a back and forth slugfest unfortunately didn’t fall their way. All Saints Catholic (an eventual state semifinalist) scored 21 unanswered second-quarter points to take a 35-21 lead into the break. Multiple times, SPX managed to pull within a single score, but could never quite get over the hump as they suffered their first defeat of 2017. Gunnel and his crew did their best to get them back in it, throwing for 486 yards, but also tossed a couple of costly interceptions.
St. Pius X 53, Concordia Lutheran 42
Following their first setback of the season, some may have wondered if there would be a carryover effect – which wasn’t the case for the experienced squad in a matchup featuring another game with the momentum pendulum consistently swinging both ways all night long. While Gunnell didn’t have his typical prolific passing night in pure yardage (361 yards), he still tossed six scoring throws (two each to three different receivers) and added 84 yards on the ground to go along with a score and a key two-point conversion. And on a night where it initially seemed as though offenses would simply run out of time, it was an interception by senior Ricky Lester (his fourth of the season) with less than three minutes to go which sealed the victory.
St. Pius X 62, Kelly Catholic 14
On Homecoming, the Panthers gave their fans a treat, rushing out to a 27-8 first quarter lead and never looking back. A swarming defense barely allowed the Bulldogs to breathe on this night, holding them to just 201 yards on the ground – including -40 yards rushing – and forced four turnovers, leading to several short fields for their prolific attack; and the offense didn’t disappoint. Gunnell completed 16 of 20 attempts for 272 yards and seven touchdowns, while Chase Lane (172 yards, 2 TDs) was his favorite target. Freshman Jace Wilson (55 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore Jalen Davis (67 yards, 1 TD), provided nice balance. As a team, the Panther defense tallied 6.5 tackles for a loss (TFL) and six sacks, with Benil Johnson and Jacob Craig each amassing 2.5 sacks.
St. Pius X 56, St. Thomas Catholic 14
No matter the circumstances, the annual rivalry game between the area’s two premiere programs always carries some extra weight in the season’s final game. After losing five straight contests 2011-2015, the Panthers regained their mojo with a victory last year, and kept it going this season with a dominating effort. Gunnell torched the Eagles defense for 466 total yards (402 passing, 64 rushing) and seven total touchdowns, while Lane (164 yards, 2 TDs) and Curry (202 yards, 3 TDs) continuously found holes in the Eagle secondary. Defensively, Forestieri (8 tackles) and Craig (10 tackles, 1 TFL) led the front seven, and Lester anchored the secondary with a phenomenal all-around game (5 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) as the Eagles mustered just 225 yards of total offense. And with that, it was on to the playoffs, with one goal in mind – that coveted state title.
**St. Pius X 56, Antonian Prep 12**
In theory, the competition gets stiffer in the postseason, and an age-old adage is that good defense will beat great offense most every time – but the Panthers didn’t get the memo. As if picking up where they left off a couple weeks earlier, SPX efficiently carved up a defense which came in surrendering just 22 points per game to the tune of 464 total yards and 56 points. Lane, Curry and Kaleb Ducros combined for 282 yards receiving and five scores on the night. Bonds and Craig led the defense with 10 stops apiece, while Goode chipped in 2 TFL to stymie the Apaches’ attack. And their reward? A date with recent nemesis Bishop Dunne.
**St. Pius X 35, Bishop Dunne 28**
While the Panthers had been largely unstoppable over the last two seasons (just four total losses) two such defeats had come at the Eagles’ hands, both in postseason play. In those losses, Gunnell had combined to complete “only” 62 percent of his passes for 460 yards, with just two touchdowns and four interceptions; but SPX wasn’t having any of it in 2017, holding off the Eagles in a hotly-contested ballgame. On this night, Gunnell would complete 29 of his 36 attempts for 286 yards and a touchdown. However, it was the rushing attack which stole the show, amassing 142 yards – after just 148 total yards in the previous two matchups – and three touchdowns, providing the balance needed to grind out a tough win. And once again the Panthers proved they were more than a one-trick pony, coming up with a huge interception around the two-minute mark of the 4th quarter to dash Bishop Dunne’s playoff hopes despite their lowest scoring output of 2017.
**St. Pius 34, Bishop Lynch 15**
After defeating a recent nemesis, the Panthers’ road didn’t get any easier, as they advanced to take on previously undefeated defending state champion Bishop Lynch out of Dallas, which came in having won its first two postseason games by a combined score of 97-21. This one started out a struggle, as the Friars tallied an early safety, and then picked off Gunnell, seemingly poised to take over a game SPX then led 6-2. sHowever, the Panthers were undaunted in their quest for glory, forcing a turnover on downs and immediately responding with an 81-yard touchdown drive to go up 14-2. And the rest is history, as the Panthers held off a brief second-half rally to reach their first state final in 10 seasons.
** = TAPPS playoff game