HEWITT — Parish Episcopal assured there would be no storybook ending to the John Paul II football team’s historic postseason.
While the Cardinals have amassed the kind of playoff run that most programs dream of — parlaying their first-ever postseason win into an appearance in the state championship game — the Panthers have been staking their claim all season as the top team on the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools gridiron.
On Friday at Midway ISD Panther Stadium, Parish brushed aside the feel-good vibes of John Paul’s hallmark postseason with a familiar onslaught of offense that fueled a 42-14 victory to grant the Panthers the TAPPS Division I state championship.
“Our guys came to fight and came to win. We fell a little bit short, but we know this was still a magical year for us to accomplish the things we set out to do,” said George Teague, John Paul head coach. “To be standing here, playing in the state championship game, it’s a dream come true for us.”
Friday’s clash marked the second time in five weeks that the Cardinals and Panthers had clashed, with Parish previously routing John Paul 47-7 on Nov. 1. The Cardinals matched their scoring output from that first meeting in just under three minutes on Friday, racking up a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive on their opening possession. Junior Grayson James found junior Myles Parker down the seam for a 36-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 9:15 left in the opening frame.
“I thought we were right where we needed to be,” Teague said. “We came out and fought hard and got an early turnover from playing big and physical. We got a little momentum going.”
Parish struck back and then some — accruing the next 21 points of the ballgame behind the backfield of quarterback Preston Stone and running backs Christian Benson and Cauren Lynch. Benson ran in a screen pass for 29 yards to tie the contest and the two rushers traded touchdown runs of 7 yards to stake the Panthers to a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter.
In between, John Paul’s answers at a counterpunch proved costly. After forcing a fumble late in the opening stanza, the Cardinals gave the ball right back to Parish on an interception by Luke Bridges to set up Lynch’s go-ahead score.
On the following series, John Paul faked a punt but was stuffed 1 yard short of the first down — a stop the Panthers capitalized on six plays later after Benson ran in a 7-yard sweep for a two-score advantage with 11:14 left in the first half.
“I think if we hadn’t missed some of those tackles, the momentum might have been a little more favorable for us,” Teague said. “… I felt like that was the right time to try that fake punt and we had the right call, and I think it makes a difference if we’re able to make that. It gives a boost to our sideline and for the fans.”
The Cardinals rebounded just 11 seconds later after a coverage bust led to James finding junior Shunte Nettles for a 70-yard score, but the Panthers swelled that advantage back to 14 points in the waning moments of the second quarter with a 17-yard run by Stone for a 28-14 lead that carried into halftime.
The well ran dry on John Paul from that point forward, though, as Parish pitched a shutout over the final two quarters behind an aggressive pass rush that brought down James behind the line of scrimmage eight times during Friday’s contest.
Although the Cardinals mounted their share of resistance defensively as well, the Panthers’ speed proved too potent as Stone fired off a 54-yard touchdown run early into the third quarter and polished off the championship win with a 17-yard scamper into the end zone with 6:00 remaining in the fourth for the eventual 42-14 final.
“Anytime you have a quarterback like that, in addition to those runners, it’s kind of a pick-your-poison kind of thing,” Teague said. “Hats off to them. They did a wonderful job and their kids played tough and hard. They’re in our district again, so we’ll see them next year.”
One of the top dual-threat quarterback prospects in the country, Stone logged 151 passing yards and 146 rushing yards as part of his four-touchdown afternoon. Benson totaled 187 yards of offense — 113 receiving and 74 rushing — along with a pair of scores.
In defeat, James passed for 286 yards and two touchdowns — both thrown the way of Parker (five catches, 105 yards) and Nettles (three catches, 89 yards) as the Cardinals closed out their best season ever at 10-4 overall.