WINONA - The old go-to for coaches and players is to continually say they are focusing on this week and not looking forward to any one opponent.
Well, Winona head coach Keylon Kincade and the Wildcats have been thinking and talking about Gunter all season.
"If you want to be a state champion, you are going to have to get past Gunter," said Kincade, a former Dallas Cowboys running back, who has piloted Winona to its best season since 1986.
"They believe 100 percent. Instead of testing the waters and seeing if it's hot or cold, they are pretty much jumping in head first … I preach to them to win every day and everything."
Winona (8-5) gets Gunter (13-0) in the Class 3A Division II quarterfinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday at City Bank Stadium in Forney.
Wildcats senior quarterback Braxton Kincade, coach Keylon's nephew, said despite history working against them, the Wildcats have had the goal of being state champions from their first practice.
It is now within sight, only three wins away, but Braxton said the players are remaining focused.
"You just have to be calm about it and keeping the younger guys in check and us older guys paving the way for them," Braxton said. "We need to follow our coaches lead and (our goal is right there)."
Winona is enjoying a four-game winning streak, which ironically, has come after the Wildcats suffered their worst loss in two years, a 48-point drubbing by Harmony, which Kincade said refocused the team.
The Wildcats responded by handing Edgewood its only district loss in their regular-season finale to secure the fourth and final playoff spot from District 8-3A Div. II.
Winona first made history by routing Daingerfield 52-27 for its first playoff win since 1987. The Wildcats weren't finished, following that success up with victories over Leonard (51-12) and Whitewright (35-28) to make the program's first trip to the quarterfinals since 1986.
"What put us over the top (against Daingerfield) was staying disciplined," Kincade said. "I think (Daingerfield) ended up with eight personal foul penalties. We're a physical team and disciplined all in one, so to speak, we have the five tools like a baseball player.
"Leonard was our first complete ball game that we played every quarter and we dominated that game. Whitewright, last week was a trap game in my opinion because we had the break and this school hasn't played that far or these been around anyone that have played (into Thanksgiving week) in the playoffs."
Against Whitewright, the Wildcats trailed by two scores twice in the first half and were behind 28-21 at halftime, but Braxton and Co. did not relent. Braxton tied the game on a 30-yard TD run before the fourth quarter was eaten up by a game-winning Winona drive that culminated in an 18-yard touchdown run by Quindarius Johnson. Braxton finished 7 of 9 passing for 143 yards and two scores to go along with his touchdown run.
Winona's defense did the rest, completing a second-half shutout to secure victory.
"Being out of our routine (with the holiday break) kind of lulled us to sleep and it showed in the first (quarter)," Kincade said about the Whitewright win. "But we bounced back and pulled our pants up and started to play Winona Wildcats football."
Added Braxton, "We just came out in the second half with more energy. Everything was clicking," Braxton continued. "You go down 28-21 and its (put-up) or shut up time."
Winona now attempts to tame a Gunter Tigers squad that has outscored their opponents 133-30 in three playoff victories. Gunter's last loss occurred in the area round last year to eventual two-time state champion, Waskom.
The Wildcats counter with a multi-faceted offense led by senior tailback Dee Wheeler, who is averaging 7.6 yards on 187 carries for 1,433 yards and 23 touchdowns. Sophomore Quinn Johnson is also one to watch as he enters this game with 1,002 yards rushing and 17 scores.
Braxton, who also plays cornerback for Winona, believes the Wildcats will have an answer for Gunter's run-oriented power attack.
"They are going to (come at us) with the triple option, stretch, dive and option - it's all about reading our keys," Braxton said. "Their scores say they've shut teams down, but the film looks like we can exploit some of their weaknesses."