Stephenville downs Melissa to claim regional title

Maci Guay
For the Empire-Tribune

The Stephenville High School Yellow Jackets became Regional Champs after beating the Melissa Cardinals 24-21 on Friday at Pennington Field in Bedford.

With a perfect record of 14-0, Stephenville advances to the state semi-finals scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, facing Wichita Falls Hirschi at Ford Center (The Star), in Frisco.

Stephenville wide receiver Reece Elston gets ready to grab a pass during Friday's regional game against Melissa. The Jackets won, 24-21. Elston had eight receptions for 56 yards on the night.

After a slow first half, Ben Kirbo (No. 5) tied the game 7-7 in the third quarter by intercepting a Melissa pass and delivering the ball 35 yards to the endzone.

A few possessions later, Stephenville QB Ryder Lambert (No. 7), threw a 30-yard pass to Coy Eakin (No. 2), who ran 95 yards to the endzone for a touchdown. The Jackets took the lead, 14-7, with four minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Great defensive work followed with Stephenville's Malachi Arredondo (No. 31) having back-to-back sacks and Jack Barkley (No. 27) ending Melissa's possession. Jackets fans roared as the final quarter began with a Stephenville possession.

Coy Eakin (No. 2) skirts the sideline as he runs toward the endzone during Friday's game against Melissa. Eakin finished the night with four receptions for a total of 173 yards and two touchdowns.

Lambert completed several passes before throwing a long toss to the endzone where the ball just missed Eakin’s fingertips, forcing a fourth down. Stephenville made a bold decision by letting Corbin Poston (No. 9), have a chance at kicking a 45-yard field goal into the wind, giving Stephenville three more points with 8 minutes and 12 seconds remaining in the game.

The Jackets' defense once again held Melissa’s offense and forced a possession on downs.

Stephenville safety Kyler Eudy (No. 3) goes after a Melissa player during their regional matchup on Friday in Bedford.

In Stephenville’s possession, Lambert threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Eakin for a 17-point lead. Melissa scored two more touchdowns, but fell three points short by the end of the game, moving the Yellow Jackets onto the state semifinals.

"We talked about it, our nondistrict prepared us, our district prepared us, great football teams," Stephenville coach Sterling Doty told the Abilene Reporter-News. "Here we are in these moments, one possession game in the second round, in the third round down seven and in the fourth round down seven. But we believed in what we do, we believed in our offseason and the guys love and care about each other."

Lambert ended the game with 13 of 30 passes completed for a total of 236 yards. He also rushed for 81 yards and threw two touchdown passes.

Stephenville's Austin Brown (No. 22) and Jack Barkley (No. 27) take down a Melissa receiver during their regional playoff game on Friday in Bedford.

Behind Lambert, Tate Maruska (No. 17) led the Jackets in rushing yards with 47 yards on eight carries. 

Eakin led the offensive efforts with 173 yards on four receptions and two touchdowns. 

Poston contributed six points with 3 PATs and a field goal.

"We're going to enjoy this one tonight and then we'll come back and evaluate the game film and lay this one to bed and we'll start our process (on the next game)," Doty told the Reporter-News. "That's what we've done the last 14 weeks, focus on being 1-0 and we've done that. I love our group, love our staff and the way that we prepare."

The Jackets will face Wichita Falls Hirschi at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 10, at Ford Center (The Star), 9 Cowboys Way, Frisco.

Stephenville High School quarterback Ryder Lambert (No. 7) runs for a gain on yards during Friday's regional playoff game against Melissa. Lambert ended the game with 81 rushing yards on nine carries and two touchdown passes.

All tickets sales are online. No tickets will be sold at the door.

Ticket prices are set at $12 pre-game and $15 on game day and are available for purchase online at SeatGeek.com.

Due to a high number of student participants and transportation availability, all SISD campuses will release two hours early on Friday, Dec. 10, and all bus routes will run two hours early that afternoon, according to a statement from district officials.

Game summary

 Turning point: Ben Kirbo's interception returned for a touchdown was big, but it was the second defensive effort of the second half that turned things around. With Melissa threatening inside the 10, the Stephenville defense stood tall and got a fourth-down stop at the 5. On the next play, receiver Coy Eakin finally got open and Lambert didn't miss for a 95-yard touchdown and a lead the Jackets held the rest of the way.

► Player of the game: Coy Eakin, WR, Stephenville — All year, Eakin has proven himself as a difference-maker and Friday's game was no different. He got most of Melissa's attention on defense and wasn't able to get open in the first half. But he did so in big ways in the second half for two touchdowns, including a 95-yard strike to turn the game around. Eakin finished with three catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. His only catch that didn't go for a score came on third-and-26 from Stephenville's own 2, on the drive that ended in a field goal.

Key stat: Melissa scored on its first drive of the game. Its next 10 drives ended with a punt, a turnover on downs or a turnover. It allowed the Jackets to turn a 7-0 deficit into a 24-7 lead. By the time the Cardinals offense got going again, it was too little, too late.

Coach Doty said: "It was our time. We challenged our guys with man coverage, 'Hey, we're going to keep putting it up to you and you're going to have to go up and make plays.' That's what he did. Ryder gave (Eakin) a shot, got it up in the air and he took it down our sideline for a huge play."

Impact: Stephenville wins the Region II-4A Division I title and advances to the state semifinals. Melissa ends its season at 11-3.

Up next: Stephenville will face Wichita Falls Hirschi, which beat Springtown 32-6 in the Region I final, in the state semifinals. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at The Star in Frisco.

Editor's Note: Abilene Reporter-News sports writer Jordan Hofeditz contributed to this report.