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Leonard shocks Cooper, reaches state semis

Roger McKenzie
Leonard seniors Ty McKinney, Solomon Titus, and Justin Bennett (pictured left to right) helped the Tigers post a 28-20 upset of previously undefeated Cooper Monday afternoon in a 2A quarter-final game played at the Royce City ISD football stadium.

The Leonard High School football team is headed to a Class 2A semi-final game with Cisco this weekend after shocking undefeated Cooper 28-20 in a rare Monday afternoon play-off game at the beautiful Royce City ISD stadium. The game was played in frigid temperatures with a stiff north-to-south wind, after being postponed by a winter storm that kept groundskeepers busy removing ice from the stadium seats and aisles prior to the game.

The underdog Tigers improved to 11-3 in their most successful trip ever to the playoffs. In doing so, they stopped the Bulldogs in their quest for a 14th straight win. Leonard will face Cisco (14-0) on Saturday at a site and time to be determined. Cisco defeated Canadian 42-14 in its quarterfinal game.

After winning three playoff games,  including a rematch with S&S Consolidated in their last outing, Coach Shane Fletcher was asked to describe what makes this year's team special. His answer was its resiliency.  He noted that in their three prior playoff games this year, the Tigers found a was to bounce back after falling behind in two of them.

Asked what his team had to do to win, he said simply, “We have to stop what they do.”

That's just what the Tigers did, forcing the run-oriented Bulldogs into punts on their first three possessions. The Bulldogs helped the Tigers out by committing numerous penalties that helped stall the Cooper offense.

Meanwhile, the Tiger offense kept the Bulldog defense guessing most of the night with a run and pass oriented offense. While 2000 yard rusher Solomon Titus rushed for just over 200 yards and a touchdown, quarterback Justin Bennett passed for three touchdowns.

Moving quickly after taking the opening kick-off, the Tigers marched 58-yards to paydirt in six plays that took less than 90 seconds off the clock. Dillon Monck was on the receiving end of an 11-yard touchdown toss from Bennett.

Ty McKinney kicked the first of four extra points to put the Tigers on top with 10:35 on the first quarter clock.

Leonard never gave up the lead. After their second drive ended on an interception by Cooper's Jordan Sullivan, the Tiger defense stopped the  Bulldogs. The Leonard offense made up for the turnover by marching 79 yards in 11 plays.

Titus carried the ball seven times for  63 yards on the drive, including a 37-yard run. He scored from a yard out two minutes into the second quarter.

Cooper's only score in the first half followed a second Tiger turnover, a fumble recovered by Austen Blakely. The Bulldogs traveled 65 yards in five plays, overcoming two penalties. Blakely scored on the receiving end of a 31-yard pass with 2:29 to go until half-time. Cooper's two-point conversion try failed.

Leonard answered with a touchdown on the first half's final play. A good return and yet another Cooper penalty set the Tigers up on Cooper's 44-yard line. A balanced drive of runs and passes almost fell short. With five seconds left until half-time, the Tigers faced a fourth and goal and the Bulldog one-yard line. The Tigers bunched up to stop Titus, but Bennett rolled left and hit Monck for the score as the clock ran out. Leonard was in command with a 21-6 lead.

Cooper came out strong and scored on a 71-yard drive to open the second half. Jordan Sillivan scored on a 33-yard run around his left end with 7:21 on the clock. Grant Sepulveda ran the ball for a two-point conversion that pulled the Bulldogs within 21-14.

An incomplete lateral pass was not covered as Leonard lost its third turnover of the game. The Tiger defense tightened up, however, getting a sack and forcing another Bulldog punt.

Cooper forced a punt from the Tigers and took just three plays to score. Colby Earley out ran Leonard's defenders for a 74-yard touchdown on the final play of the third quarter. The extra point run was stopped short, but the Bulldogs had pulled within one at 21-20 and had momentum as the final quarter began.

Leonard marched to the Cooper 35, but was stopped inches short on a fourth down try. Cooper was primed to take the lead, but fumbled the ball and a Tiger player recovered at the Bulldog 43-yard line with 6:34 left in the game.

The Tigers used almost five minutes running 10 plays. From the Bulldog nine-yard line, Bennett threw his third touchdown pass of the game to Ryan Nixon, again fooling the Bulldog defense. After the extra point kick, Leonard led 28-20 with just 1:51 left.

The Bulldogs went to the air, getting to the Tiger 32-yard line. But a fourth and nine pass was incomplete on the game's final play, preserving the upset.

“Unbelievable,” said a happy Coach Fletcher after the game.

He gave credit to the team's defense and to the success of the offense in using both the run and the pass.

“Our defense has played well all-year,” he said. “We knew we had to mix it up on offense.”