ARLINGTON — High school football is 48 minutes of punishing, physical contact. Stephenville quarterback Easton Jones felt every one of them.
In keeping with the seeming early trend of the UIL State Semifinal round, Kennedale’s defense — more than powerful running backs DJ Kirven and Jaden Knowles — played part in a spoiler Friday night at AT&T Stadium.
Especially After Jaden Myers’ trio of drive-stopping sacks in the first half.
“I can’t pinpoint a point where the tide turned, all I know is we had control of the game when we needed to,” Wildcat Head Coach Richard Barret said with a smile. “There was a point where we felt they couldn’t stop us. When I’d go to one of my coaches and tell him ‘We’re going four downs’ and not think twice about it.”
The Wildcats struck first with Larry Brooks’ red zone interception of Jones, which set up Kirven’s 60-yard run six minutes later and 7-yard score with 4:28 in the first quarter.
And while Stephenville struggled to sustain drives with its air-raid, pass-heavy offense against a candidate all defense that smothered receivers and forced one-dimensionality, Kennedale used both a tried-and-true ground attack and unconventional offense.
Unconventional because Evan Jowers, a quarterback that’s thrown 84 passes this season, found Jaden Smith with a picture-perfect touchdown pass to punch the Yellowjackets deficit to 14 points.
“It’s like I said before. It throws [teams] off when they see it. It’s like a knockout jab when they’re waiting for the left hook,” Jowers said, adding a slight chuckle. “It was all because of Larry and the defense, though. Momentum in football is everything. It’s key. If they would have started with the momentum and scored right off the back, it could have been a different ball game.”
Brooks, true to his humble nature, deflected credit to the offense and their potency.
“We’re just concerned about getting sacks and interceptions and putting them in a bind, forcing turnovers or punts, and getting the offense back on the field,” he countered.
Kirven, despite his brilliance and 348 total yards and five touchdowns, nearly made a fatal mistake. On 1st and 10, Kirven broke a long run and, while putting a defender in the spin cycle, fumbled the ball into the end zone. Chase Carrillo and Stephenville’s momentary rally would be short-lived after Knowles scored back-to-back touchdowns of 36 and 46 yards.
Blue Caylor’s 3-yard run with 13 seconds left was the Yellowjackets only of the first 24 minutes.
With little more than a minute left before the halftime whistle, Kennedale had stormed to an insurmountable lead with one of the most methodical offenses in high school football.
And if Kennedale’s first half was dominating, then the second was decisive.
Not only did the Wildcats seep 4:20 off the clock in a half-opening drive and cap it with a Kirven 5-yard touchdown, they sacked Jones for the fifth time on Stephenville’s first series.
Kirven added a third scoring run of the 57-yard variety and by the time he stepped into the end zone for his fourth — the second time in three games he accomplished that feat — after a 12-yard rumble, the Wildcats’ high-step to the first football state title in Kennedale history was academic.
Though Kirven earned the Wildcats’ share of the carries, Knowles added 15 carries for 149 yards and two touchdowns — backbreaking scores that turned the game from a sprint into a green and white track meet.
Kennedale gained 585 yards of total offense to Stephenville’s 385. Three-hundred and fifty-seven of those yards and three of the touchdowns belonged to Jones, who completed 23 of his 39 passes in the final game of his high school career.
Jones’ passes to Blake Aragon, Kade Averhoff Kyle Lindsey helped the Yellowjackets shear the lead to 26 — too little, too late for one of the most explosive offenses in the state and a finish not even the loudest cheer shaker could erase.
In the end, Barret said, it was the pain, anguish, and regret of falling short of a state title game a year ago that powered his Wildcats to a historical first.
“It had everything to do with where we are. It left a bad taste in their mouths. It really did,” he continued, hardening his features and blocking tears from springing forth. “We talked about that all through the offseason, the summer, and the season. We said to ourselves ‘That’s not going to happen again. We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to lose in the semifinals.’ It added fuel to the fire. It was our motivation.”
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