FRISCO, Texas —A matchup between high-scoring offenses from Jacksboro and New Diana High Schools — two of the most proficient in the UIL Class 3A — promised touchdowns and points in bunches.
Neither Eagles’ Jackson Sampson or Tigers’ Payton Laake disappointed during New Diana’s 49-48 come-from-behind victory to claim a regional semifinal title and complete a two-year turnaround from a winless 2015 finish Thursday night at The Star in Frisco.
“We knew they were going to be an extremely physical football team with the style of football they play. We had to match that,” Eagle Head Coach Robbie Coplin said about facing a punishing Jacksboro offense. “People consider us a finesse team because we’re in the spread and all that stuff but I think a lot of time we’ve been able to prove we can physical up with people when we need to.”
While New Diana (9-3) and Sampson (251-387, 4,216 yards, 55 TD, 13 INT) entered the game the No. 1 seed in District 7-3A-2 and suffered losses to only De Kalb, White Oak, and West Rusk High Schools, Jacksboro stormed into the third round on a tear, winning all but one of its season games.
The (11-1) Tigers, though, found themselves behind the power curve and under the wheels of New Diana’s air-raid offense and in a blow-blow-for-blow slugfest for supremacy in Region III.
With 10:01 left in the first quarter, feature back Jacob Choyce scored on an 8-yard run he also scored on a 56-yard touchdown reception. His first score gave New Diana a seven-point lead. The second extended the game to 21-14 before the end of the first quarter.
In between, Sampson — one of his six total touchdown throws — found Cole Willeford with a 14-yard TD pass to place the pressure on the favorite.
“There was a lot of resiliency in this game,” Coplin remarked. “We had all the momentum in the first half and we gave it to ’em right before halftime.”
Jacksboro’s dominant, run-heavy Wing-T offense, though, kept it in the game and then helped take the lead.
Between the end of the second quarter and the end of the third, the Tigers — via a 3-yard touchdown by Hunter Jackson, a 35-yard run by Caleb Keith, a 15-yard pass from Laake to Ty Kennedy, and back-to-back runs be Kennedy and Keith for distances of 5 and 54 yards — outscored the Eagles 21-14. Keith’s first touchdown was the second run of 20-plus yards on that drive Jacksboro.
The loss of Choyce to ejection due to dual unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the third quarter nearly stole New Diana’s thunder. The Eagles defense stood tall, stopping Jacksboro on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter.
“I know they were feeling really good as they went into the half, but it was like one of those deals where we had to find a way to back out and take that back,” Coplin noted.
While Cody Payton’s 57-yard touchdown reception with 7:34 left in the fourth quarter helped whittle the deficit — despite Keith’s third scoring run of the game and helped by a missed field goal on the ensuing play — it wasn’t the defining moment.
That momentary span of brilliance belonged to 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior TJ Rodgers, who hauled in his third touchdown reception of the night.
On the 23-yard line with 52 seconds left on the clock, Sampson shot another laser beam toward Payton, and toward a Tiger defender. It was almost a game-ending interception after Laake dropped the ball. Three plays later, Sampson found a receiver streaking toward the sideline on 4th and 9.
It took Sampson, who started under center for the 0-10 Eagles as a sophomore in 2015, one extra play with 17 seconds to send the New Diana to the UIL Class 3A Regional Final. An alley-oop to a leaping Rodgers, who outjumped his defender, was the game-winner.
“They’re a freakin’ good football team and they battled. That was the way a playoff football game should be and how every one of them should end,” Coplin said with a chuckle, the twang in his voice reaching a fever pitch amongst the cacophony of cheers and shouts from players celebrating the Eagles’ biggest win in their history. “This one was a big one for us because our school’s never reached the fourth round of the football playoffs. Never. They’ll get till about 7:30 in the morning to enjoy this when we start liftin’ weights, though. Then we go back to work.”
His Eagles will play the winner of the Gunter-Holliday matchup next week. The location of the looming Regional Final game has yet to be decided.
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