A dominant middle stretch and a late interception pushed Whitesboro to an important home win Friday night.
The Bearcats clinched a playoff spot with a 35-28 win against Paradise in Whitesboro despite trailing early.
Whitesboro (5-4 overall, 4-2 District 4-3 A-1) avenged the loss to the Panthers that kept the Bearcats out of the playoffs last year. Next week’s game against Peaster will determine which school finishes third and which finishes fourth.
Paradise (5-4, 2-4) was eliminated from playoff contention with the loss after making it last season.
Whitesboro coach Cody Fagan said this win provided some redemption for the Bearcats.
“I think our kids are really excited about that, knowing that these guys kept us out (of the playoffs) last year,” Fagan said. “We were able to basically return the favor this year and keep them out, get ourselves in, accomplish the first goal we set way back in late July. The kids were pumped to get that job done.”
Paradise started strong and led 14-0 in the second quarter. Whitesboro responded with 28-straight points, turning the game completely around. Bearcat seniors Sean Schares and Jacob Smith scored rushing touchdowns to tie the game. Junior quarterback Mac Harper then threw a touchdown to Schares just before halftime to give Whitesboro the lead at the break.
Smith capped off the scoring run with another rushing touchdown late in the third quarter.
Fagan said he didn’t say much to the team when it was 14-0, but he did look to the seniors to get the players’ attention.
“I think our kids just knew that we had shot ourselves in the foot early,” Fagan said. “We didn’t come out with a lot of enthusiasm early. They did, and they punched us in the mouth… The kids stayed calm and executed at a high level.”
After the two teams traded touchdowns, Paradise made it 35-28 with a score late in the fourth quarter. A penalty on Whitesboro during the touchdown allowed the Panthers to kick off in Whitesboro territory. The Panthers recovered an onside kick, giving them a chance to tie or win.
Instead, junior Jace Sanders stepped up and intercepted a Paradise pass, saving the game and sending the Bearcats to the playoffs.
Fagan said the defense needs to be more consistent, but they got it done on the last play.
“All the momentum’s in their favor,” Fagan said. “It’s one of those moments where kids are going to have to respond again. We faced a ton of adversity this year, faced a ton of it (in this game). They just responded by knowing that the moment wasn’t bigger than them at that time, and they played really, really hard and came up with the play when they had to.”
The Bearcats had made the playoffs every year since 2011 until last season, but they return to the postseason this year. Fagan said some teams may overlook a four-loss squad in the playoffs, but he thinks Whitesboro can be a threat.
“We know our strengths and weaknesses now,” Fagan said. “We’ve played really, really good people, and we’ve played some really, really good people really close. We’d love to get in that playoff run and see if we can get a little rematch with a few of those guys.”