After a wealth of storms blew through Cooke County, the Gainesville Leopards began their 2019 football season with optimism in their eyes and the sun on their backs.
Vernon instantly sucked the life out of the Leopards with a lengthy drive to open the game. But just as soon as the Lions scored, the Leopards had an immediate response.
A 92-yard kickoff return up the right sideline by Izaiah Baker evened the game at 7-7 and rejuvenated the Leopards’ sideline.
Gainesville never looked back.
The Leopards smacked the Tigers in the mouth with three consecutive scores and took a 28-10 lead into halftime on the way to a 55-24 victory Friday, Aug. 30, at Leopard Stadium.
It was the first season-opening victory for the Leopards under head coach James Polk, who said the victory was a culmination of a ton of hard work that began right after their playoff loss to Canyon on Nov. 16.
“A lot of teams will take the rest of the month off and get going in January and we chose not to do that,” Polk said. “We can see the potential we have. We implemented a lot since that loss to Canyon. Our offseason started that next Monday and it was a countdown to today. We want to have a winning record when we get to district, so when you start off with a win, it makes it more attainable.”
Baker’s score tied the game with 7:12 left in the first quarter.
“I’ve been saying since day 1 that he’s electric,” Polk said. “We’ve got several players like that. I jumped all over him for missing a tackle on Vernon’s first touchdown and he said, ‘I got it coach. I got it.’ He got it. He took it 92 to the house. That’s the first time in my career that we scored on the first kickoff return.”
Senior quarterback Traylen Shinault carried the offense with five total touchdowns while CJ Feagins popped off two 50-plus-yard touchdown runs.
Gainesville’s defense forced a punt to the 15-yard line and later converted a 3rd-and-3 to their on 37-yard line.
After a penalty moved the ball to the Gainesville 42-yard line, Feagins ripped off a seemingly effortless 58-yard touchdown through the right side of the Tigers’ defense.
That gave the Leopards the 14-7 lead with 58 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Leopards’ defense bowed up again by forcing a 3-and-out and their offense quickly struck while the iron was hot.
It took Gainesville just four plays before Shinault scampered up the left sideline for an 11-yard touchdown to put the Leopards up 21-7 with 9:39 left in the first half.
It went from bad to worse for the Tigers as they fumbled on their next play from scrimmage as Tony Ochoa scooped up the turnover at the Vernon 19-yard line.
Isaiah Gipson then hauled in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Shinault on the delayed offsides penalty to put the Leopards ahead 28-7 with 9:14 left in the second quarter.
The Tigers chewed up the clock on their final drive of the game, driving the ball down to the Leopards’ 5-yard line. Gainesville held them out of the end zone and the Tigers cut the lead to 28-10 with a 33-yard field goal to close out the half.
Gainesville stepped on the Tigers’ throat to open the second half as the Leopards returned the kickoff to the Vernon 33-yard line.
Six plays later, Shinault recoverd his own fumble and cuts up the left side for a 2-yard touchdown to push the lead to 34-10 with 9:01 left in the third frame.
Vernon answered with a nine-play drive that was capped off by a 4-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 34-17.
Despite having some of their worst field position of the night at the 36-yard line, the Leopards needed just three plays to find the end zone as Feagins used his 52-yard touchdown on a counter run to push the lead to 41-17.
Gainesville’s Jesse Coffey ended the Tigers’ next drive with a sack on fourth down and the Leopards’ quickly made them pay on their first play as Shinault’s fourth touchdown of the game was an absolutely wide-open 57-yard touchdown throw to Izaiah Baker down the left sideline with 11:38 left in the game.
A 5-yard touchdown run cut the lead to 48-24 with 7:51 left in the game.
Shinault added one last touchdown on a 22-yard run to push the score to 55-24.