Eight years ago, the Gilmer football team met the Atlanta Rabbits in the quarterfinals and witnessed first-hand what it takes to win a title against the eventual state champions.
Only a year later, the Buckeyes used that knowledge to produce a 16-0 record and the first state title in school history.
The program has remained a state power ever since, rolling out 10 or more victories in six of seven seasons, qualifying for three more title games and producing another title in 2011.
On Friday, No. 10 Gilmer (14-1) is scheduled to meet top-ranked Navasota (15-0) in the Class 3A Division II championship game at 4 p.m. from Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. One more win would give the Buckeyes their third championship under head coach Jeff Traylor, a remarkable run that rivals the best in East Texas football history.
The following is a recap of Gilmer’s three previous appearances in the final.
Class 3A Division II Final
Gilmer 49, Jasper 47
Saturday, Dec. 18, 2004
Before a standing-room only crowd at Stephen F. Austin’s Homer Bryce Stadium, the Buckeyes and Jasper produced one of the most electrifying state finals in recent memory.
With future Oklahoma Sooners receiver Manuel Johnson at quarterback, Gilmer had leads of 21-0, 28-6 and 42-21 before watching the Bulldogs rally as the game went down to the wire.
In his final game at Gilmer, Johnson completed 16 of 27 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns to help the Buckeyes finish the season unbeaten.
“I’m so happy for the team, the coaches and the Gilmer community,” Johnson said after the game. “We’re happy, but it is also a sense of relief. We didn’t want to let Gilmer down because everyone had talked about us winning the state championship.
“It feels really good for the seniors of ’05 to be the first ones to bring home a state championship to Gilmer.”
Johnson’s biggest score of the night — a 65-yard strike to future Mississippi State receiver Tay Bowser — came with the Buckeyes clinging to a 42-41 lead with 6:41 left in the game.
“Manuel overcame a lot of adversity tonight,” Traylor said. “He kept bouncing back and these kids never give up.
“I’m so proud of these kids. I’m proud of the assistant coaches, the community, everyone. The head coach gets too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose.”
The victory came on a night when Jasper sophomore quarterback Gilbert Moye also performed like a state champion, rushing for 253 yards and passing for 174 yards.
Class 3A Division I Final
Liberty Hill 38, Gilmer 13
Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007
On a cold and windy afternoon at Baylor University’s Floyd Casey Stadium, Gilmer ran into a buzz-saw in the form of Liberty Hill in the 25-point setback — the Buckeyes’ only loss of the season.
With its passing game basically grounded because of the wind and quarterback Darian Godfrey playing with a thumb injury, Gilmer was limited to only 118 total yards and allowed 353 yards rushing to Liberty Hill — which claimed its second straight state title and captured its 24th consecutive win.
Godfrey, a sophomore at the time, completed 12 of 30 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Senior running back Justin Johnson, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards that season, was limited to 13 carries for four yards, but returned the opening kickoff 82 yards for a score.
“Our defense played good enough. We just didn’t get it done offensively…couldn’t catch a pass,” Traylor said after the game. “We didn’t execute real well…They played great. I’m very proud of my seniors…best team won today.”
Class 3A Division I Final
Gilmer 43, Abilene Wylie 26
Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009
Once again undefeated heading into the title round at 14-0, the Buckeyes scored the game’s first 21 points and never looked back en route to the 17-point victory.
With Godfrey back in the round for his senior season, Gilmer accounted for 223 yards on the ground (34 carries) and 268 yards through the air. Godfrey led the way in both, rushing 18 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns and completing 21 of 29 passes for the entire passing yards and with no interceptions.
The Buckeyes defense was also determined to bring the title trophy back to East Texas, limiting Wylie to 29 carries for 61 yards.
“Everyone touted Wylie, which had surrendered an average of under 14 points per game, and having the number one defense,” Traylor said. “But our defense was just so good tonight…We thought our defense was pretty good, too.”
Said defensive coordinator Todd Barr, who still holds the same position: “The kids came out determined and had their mind set. They weren’t going to be denied. …I’m happy with the way we dominated the first half.”