GILMER - Matt Turner reached his 34th year in coaching before he became a head football coach Thursday night, and his defending state champion Gilmer Buckeyes seemingly took almost that long to lash the Liberty-Eylau Leopards, 50-45, in a dramatic firefight of offenses that consumed over 3 1/2 hours at Jeff Traylor Stadium.
While one observer rightly credited the kicking game as a decisive factor in the outcome, another key was Gilmer running back Demarco Boyd, who had hoofed for two TDs before getting some key gains on the Buckeyes' final possession that helped ice the triumph.
With their former coach Jeff Traylor, now an assistant at the University of Texas at Austin, playing onlooker from the sidelines, the Buckeyes steamed to a 20-point lead in the third quarter, only to have to weather a captivating comeback by the Leopards, led by quarterback Ke'mon Freeman. He hot-footed for two TDs and heaved for another for the evening.
The noteworthiness of the kicking game occurred largely in the final 35.4 seconds of the first half, when L-E first surrendered a safety on a bad snap over its punter's head into its end zone. After Gilmer returned the ensuing free kick, Juan Esquivel hammered one of his two field goals of the evening, a 25-yarder as the half expired, to hand the Buckeyes a 26-20 lead at twirling time.
Gilmer seemed to be headed for one of its typical top-heavy triumphs in the third quarter when defender Jeremy Kelley filched a Freeman pass and returned it 81 yards for a stupefying touchdown, which was followed by teammate Desmond Jones' 10-yard TD trip. With Esquivel's two PATs, that launched Gilmer ahead 40-20 with 4:42 remaining in the third quarter before L-E slashed the gap to 40-33.
The Leopards got within five points with only 2:33 left in the marathon contest when Lamont Byrd hastened 33 yards to tally, and Gilmer incurred a 15-year unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that let the visitors kick off from the Buckeyes' end of the field. But L-E's onside kick failed, and Boyd made his crucial pickups - including a 12-yarder on fourth-and-1 - that snuffed the Leopards' comeback.