ARLINGTON — Gilmer has grown accustomed to playing for state titles during the past eight years. The Buckeyes have been in three state finals, winning two of them and ascending to powerhouse status.
That being said, this season's team is different than the previous three that survived until the final weekend of the playoffs. For one, they aren't an undefeated squad loaded with seniors about to play their final high school game.
"I've never had a team this young," Gilmer coach Jeff Traylor said. "Every time we've been in the championship, we've been a senior-heavy team."
On Friday, the No. 10 Buckeyes (14-1) meet top-ranked Navasota (15-0) in the Class 3A Division II championship game at 4 p.m. from Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Gilmer won titles in 2004 and '09 and finished as the runner-up in '07.
"It's our goal every year," Traylor said. "I know we've been made fun of a lot because we make that public. But we have two goals in Gilmer, and that's to win a state championship every year and become the best young men we can possibly become."
The Buckeyes will meet a Navasota team that's been dominant throughout the first 15 games (outscored district opponents 191-0), but will be shorthanded due to injury. That's because Rattlers running back Xavier Creeks, who had rushed for 1,017 yards and eight touchdowns, suffered a broken leg in an automobile accident Thursday morning.
It's the second such injury the Rattlers have faced this season; all-state linebacker Will Imhoff suffered a season-ending broken leg Sept. 21 against Lexington.
Gilmer advanced to the title round in impressive fashion, rolling past Graham 50-7 in the semifinals at Mansfield's Vernon Newsom Stadium. The Buckeyes scored 21 points in the first quarter and 21 more in the third to run away from the Steers.
On the season, junior quarterback Tanner Barr has completed 237 of 382 passes for 2,873 yards and 25 touchdowns, and has carried the ball 124 times for 849 yards and five scores. The junior's receiving target has been sophomore Chase Tate, who has 56 catches for 491 yards and three scores.
On the ground, sophomore running back Kris Boyd has carried the ball 153 times for 1,259 yards and 19 touchdowns.
On defense, junior linebacker Josh Walker (Texas A&M pledge) has registered 106 tackles (57 solo) and six sacks while senior defensive lineman Xavier Fluellen has registered 105 stops (82 solo) and 12 quarterback hurries.
Navasota, meanwhile, is in the state championship game for the first time since 1988 (the Rattlers fell 42-8 to then-3A Southlake Carroll). The Rattlers, who fell 56-46 to eventual state champion Chapel Hill in the third round last season, outscored their district opponents 191-0 and have allowed only one opponent to within 11 points (beat LaMarque 31-20 in third round).
Despite Creeks being out of the lineup, the Rattlers still have their top weapon in quarterback Kadarius Baker, who's completed 246 of 390 passes for 4,252 yards and 53 touchdowns with eight interceptions. The senior's top targets have been receivers Austin Collins and Solomon McGinty, who've caught 88 passes for 1,711 yards and 26 touchdowns; and 82 passes for 1,654 yards and 20 TDs, respectively.
"They look like a playstation team," Traylor said. "They're just out there having fun and scoring at will. They score in one play so many times with (Collins) and (McGinty). Their quarterback is very accurate and they throw the ball well. What people forget is how great their defense is."
On that side of the ball, defensive lineman Jordan Wells has produced 153 tackles and 13 sacks to lead the way. Other standouts for the stop unit include linebacker Dustin Savensky (170 total tackles), linebacker Jaylyin Minor (166 total tackles), defensive end Jake Bauer (119 total tackles) and Collins (seven interceptions).