Storybook season: John Tyler nearing final chapter


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John Tyler senior wide receiver Justice Liggins gets taken down by Whitehouse's Christopher Reese during their game at Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium for the 16-4A title. (Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph)
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John Tyler's Reggie Gipson runs up the middle for a 14-yard touchdown against Frisco Centennial in the Class 4A Division I state quarterfinals in Ennis on December 7, 2012. (Herb Nygren Jr/Tyler Morning Telegraph)
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All offseason the John Tyler Lions looked forward to rewriting the ending from last year.

JT turned the page back to the same point the 2011 campaign stopped when the Lions earned a second straight spot in the state semifinals with Friday’s 38-24 win over Frisco Centennial.

JT (13-1) takes on Denton Guyer (12-2) Friday in Midlothian with a spot in the Class 4A Division I championship game on the line.

By reaching the final four of high school football, JT finds itself back where it all started, and ended. The Lions lost to Waco Midway in last year’s state semifinals. The Lions restarted the Cujo era with a win over Killeen Shoemaker in the bi-district round in 2008 in Midlothian, the program’s first playoff victory in eight years following a brief down cycle.

JT players and coaches alike embraced a second chance to get over the final hump left before the state championship round.

“We’re going back to where we were last year,” JT senior quarterback Greg Ward. “Now the job is to finish it.”

Not even injuries to three starters, or a brief three-point deficit in the second half, deterred JT from staying on course. Ward, who totaled 396 yards of offense, limped to the sideline twice in the second half. Ross picked up the slack and then some with 13 catches for 172 yards and three TDs, including a scoring grab from Tyus Bowser early in the fourth quarter for a 35-24 lead.

“We’re finally back,” Ross said of JT’s return to the semifinals. “We’re going to work this week and work until we get it done. We have to come out and play.”

The Lions pressed forward with a determined effort from their offense and timely plays by their big-play defense. JT became the first team to hit the 300-yard mark passing against Centennial, which entered the game allowing less than 16 points.

JT posted 475 total yards of offense and 26 first downs. JT finished with four more takeaways to increase its turnover count to 42 on the season.

Center Chris Starling stood with the assistance of crutches in the second half after an injury. Starting linebacker Richard Gipson, the team’s leading tackler who intercepted a pass against Centennial, exited the game injured as well.

Starting with district, JT avoided the injury bug for the most part, and hopes to get back to full strength before taking on Guyer, which started the season ranked No. 1. JT, which spent one week at No. 1 and ended the regular season at No. 2, holds the distinction of being the highest-rated team left after top-ranked Pearland Dawson fell in regionals.

“We have to get back healthy,” JT head coach Ricklan Holmes said. “They’ll be a little gimpy to start the week, but I (think) they’ll be ready for next week.”

JT scored the final 10 points against Centennial, a week after the Lions tallied the final 14 points versus Frisco.

The Lions eye another strong finish against Guyer, which would allow them to tend to the unfinished business of getting through the semifinals, and competing for the school’s first state championship since 1994.

“We have to keep finishing games like we’ve been,” Holmes said. “We’ve got one more game to take care of before we can accomplish our last goal.”

 

John Tyler Rewind

Final score: John Tyler 38, Frisco Centennial 24.

Turning point: Senior athlete Tyus Bowser, who notched his 21st sack on defense, entered the game as quarterback on the first play of the fourth quarter, and completed his first pass to Fred Ross for a 13-yard score to give JT a 35-24 lead, and just enough breathing room down the stretch.

The game was over when: Senior cornerback Traven Johnson jumped high and stayed in bounds, all while pulling down an end zone in the interception with 4:22 left to keep JT ahead two scores.

Key stats: Centennial completed just 8 of 28 passes in the second half, with JT intercepting three throws on the day. JT now has 23 interceptions and 19 fumble recoveries on the season.

Warning signs: Injuries to three key players could affect JT in the next round, with quarterback Greg Ward, center Chris Starling and linebacker Richard Gipson all going down at some point against Centennial.

Positive signs: JT’s combination of talent and determination appear to be a championship recipe, with the Lions now on a 12-game winning streak. JT is outscoring teams by an average of 24.8 points per game.

What this win means: The ’12 Lions moved up to third in school history with 13 wins in a single season. The current team trails only the state titlist from 1994 (16-0) and 1973 (15-0) in victories for a season.

Fast forward: JT prepares to face Denton Guyer, which won 52-42 in an offensive shootout over previously-unbeaten North Richland Hills Birdville in the Region I title game. Guyer is led by dual-threat quarterback Jerrod Heard, a junior already committed to Texas. Heard has rushed for 1,677 yards and 26 TDs, and passed for 1,829 yards and 15 TDs with six interceptions. Guyer played in the 4A state semifinals in 2008 and 2009, and advanced to the 5A Division II championship in 2010.