ENNIS — As the tears fell after Friday's 38-36 win against Kaufman High School at Ennis' Lion Memorial Stadium, Landon Lebetter, Hogan Keasler and the Jaguars knew where the regional round was calling.
More importantly, Midlothian Heritage High School (11-1) was ready to sit at the table of a high school football F.E.A.S.T. only 16 teams can attend.
"We worked so hard for this and this was our goal — to play on Thanksgiving," Ledbetter said, blinking back tears against the bitterly cold wind. "We did what we set out to do and now we're going to feast. All the hard offseason work, the boot camps and early practices were worth it. This is amazing. I'm so blessed to be part of this program. I love these guys."
For the first time since their win against Alvarado High School, Kaufman's Lions handed he and the Jaguars a test that required guts, glory, game-winning theatrics and everything in between.
This win was not as fluid as the others nor did it end in the first, second or third quarters, either. It needed every second of Midlothian Heritage's effort and every yard of its desire.
The Jaguars and Lions gave and took heavy blows from the boys on the opposite sides of the field, first with a 4-yard touchdown toss from Ledbetter to Midlothian Heritage's Nathan Gaskamp (18 rush, 199 yds, 1 TD) and then with an 8-yard run from Kaufman's Marquithias Johnson (24 rush, 179 yds, 3 TDs). Noah Parker (5-yard reception) and De'Kembe Mccullar (1-yard run) added touchdowns on back-to-back trading scoring drives.
Dre Prox's 6-yard touchdown run on a Kaufman jet sweep was the final jab during a first half of football between two Ellis County titans and a pair of gladiators unwilling to give the other quarter.
The lead changed hands a total of seven times throughout 48 minutes of football and by halftime, the Lions held a 22-21 lead. While Kaufman focused on Johnson (11 rush, 56 yds, 1 TD in 1st half) and its imposing run game, Ledbetter (9/13, 128 yds 3 TDs in 1st half) and Midlothian Heritage carved up the Lion secondary.
"We've said it time and time and time again. All [the Jaguars] know how to do is go hard," said Jaguar Head Coach Lee Wiginton. "They're disappointed when we don't execute offensively and when we give up big plays on defense, but they're still on to the next play. It's hard to get kids to do that. They got to the next play in a hurry and kept battling and found a way to win."
Gaskamp added a 68-yard touchdown in the third quarter and finished with 66 yards and 2 touchdowns on 3 receptions.
Despite 16- and 43-yard second-half touchdown runs from Johnson, the Jaguars found their mettle during the final 24 minutes. Midlothian Heritage forced two Abraham Garcia punts, a Lion three-and-out and a Tre Collier interception — courtesy of cornerback Brayden Wright — on Kaufman's final six drives.
The area round matchup wasn't without late game dramatics, though.
After Kaufman fended off a 13-play, 57-yard drive and stuffed Jorden Thompson 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage at the 15-yard line with the score deadlocked at 36 and less than two minutes on the clock, the game seemingly looked headed for overtime. That's when icy-cool Keasler and his clutch right leg sounded the victory bell.
"I love these guy so much and the fact I could give them another week of football," Keasler said after the game, voice shaking with triumph as tears streamed down his face. "Last season wasn't my best — I think I had more misses than makes — but I worked very hard this summer to be a guy they can depend on. They were able to drive down the length of the field and give me a chance to do something special. I know I already said it, but I'm glad I could give the guys I love a chance to play football next week."
His 32-yard field goal was the eventual dagger in the heart of the Lions and an eraser to their regional round hopes, but Midlothian Heritage's defense would have to make a last stand for Keasler's kick to force the Jaguars into 4A football history.
Though the Collier-Johnson-Prox combination drove the 46 yards down the field and was within 10 yards of Garcia's field goal range, Midlothian Heritage again found its pluck. On a crucial third-and-4 on the Jaguar 38-yard line, Dre Washington jumped in front of a 12-yard Collier-to-Prox pass that would have given the Lions a first down with more than 30 seconds left in the game and put Kaufman in a position to tie the game.
"We didn't expect it to be this crazy of a game, but we knew it was going to be an unbelievable football game," Wiginton said. "We had the pleasure of watching them play last Friday and what we saw was a good football team that is well-coached, skilled and plays the game hard. We won a high-scoring game earlier in the year against Decatur that ended up 52-50 and won an unbelievable low-scoring game against Alvarado that ended 17-14. We told the boys that we didn't know what the result was going to be, but what we did know was that it was going to go down to the wire."
By beating Kaufman and moving on to the 7:30 p.m. Friday regional quarterfinal game against Kennedale High School at Vernon Newsom Stadium, the Jaguars made the third round for the first time in school history and became the first Midlothian team to reach the regionals in more than a decade.
Wiginton's Midlothian High School Panther team finished a District 7-5A schedule loaded with DeSoto, Cedar Hill, Duncanville and South Grand Prarie High Schools 4-3 and made the bi-district round of the UIL playoffs in 2012.