‘Cats suffer heartbreaking loss as historic season ends

The Whitney Wildcats’ historic season ended in heartbreak as the Troy Trojans escaped with a 9-7 comeback win in the regional round of the 3A-Division 1 playoffs.
Playing on a damp and soggy Friday night at Panther Stadium in Hewitt, the Wildcats controlled the first half with a 7-0 lead and seemed destined to advance. But in a flash, Troy (12-1) hit Whitney (11-2) with a double shot at the start of the third quarter.
The Trojans’ brutal rushing attack barreled to a touchdown that was immediately amplified by a fumble-induced safety. The shift in momentum spiraled the game away as the Trojans’ workhorse Zach Hrbacek steadily slipped out of the Wildcats’ grasp.
“It hurts, but you gave it all you had,” Head Coach Mark Byrd told his team following the game. “Seniors, you have done your job. You’ve made history.”
Advancing to the third round of the playoffs for only the second time in school history, Whitney won 11 games for the first time since 1955. More importantly, the Wildcats battled in the playoffs for the second consecutive year and cemented Whitney on the Texas football map.
“This sets the tone for what we want to do here as an athletic program,” Byrd said. “I’m just thankful to be a part of what you saw. The growth, the history and just seeing the whole town of Whitney get behind us.”
The Wildcat faithful of past and present were out in full force, and the first half was a highlight reel reminding the fans of why this team was so special.
Whitney came out firing on all cylinders, marching the first possession 68 yards down the field. Senior playmakers Devin Wilson, Kolby Tanner, Juan Saucedo and Dez Garner took turns shining as the Wildcats raced to the 10-yard line in less than three minutes.
From there, Garner busted through an onslaught of tackles and used a Troy defender as a springboard to pop past the goal line for a touchdown.
The seniors then switched sides and joined forces with veteran defensive stalwarts like Shawntay Owens and Mason Wooten to stymie the Trojans in the first frame.
“This senior bunch when I showed up two years ago, I had heard the names, but I still wasn’t sure because I’d never really heard about Whitney,” Byrd said. “But being a part of them and this team, they have taught me a lot about myself and made a difference. That’s what kids do.”
The Wildcats’ spirited stride continued as Wilson and Saucedo sliced and diced through the Trojan defense. But Whitney was unable to convert on consecutive trips to the red zone.
The missed opportunities fostered a string of oddities in an ominous second quarter. The Wildcats encountered a botched punt return and captured three interceptions, but failed to make the scoreboard lights flicker.
The strangeness started as Tanner stopped a Trojan score by grabbing a tipped pass. Troy then forced a Wildcat punt, which was boomed and bobbled. The Wildcats pounced, but the officials declared the Troy return man never had possession, and the Trojans escaped with a touchback as opposed to a safety.
Troy’s Hrbacek then heated up, but on a 60-yard scamper, Wilson proved he was the fastest man on the field and wrangled down the running back from behind at the 5-yard line.
Two plays later, Wilson starred again, snatching a potential touchdown toss and sprinting down the sideline. With a clear path to the end zone on the horizon, Wilson suddenly slipped down on his own accord at midfield as flags and whistles flew and blew.
The officials called off the penalty, and Whitney was left to wonder what might have been. Tanner closed out the half with another interception, but Byrd wrestled with the mishaps.
“We should’ve been up at least 21-0 at the half, but things did not go in our favor,” he lamented. “At the end of the night, we just did not generate on offense.”
For Troy, the opposite occurred with the ground game picking up steam as the game progressed. The Trojans proudly placed the ball in Hrbacek’s hands who found the end zone to start the half.
Following the score, the Wildcats went backwards on the return and then an errand snap wobbled into the end zone for a safety, handing Troy a 9-7 lead.
The Wildcat defense remained steady and forced a four-and-out, and then the offense gobbled up 30 yards to get to midfield. The drive stalled and Troy blocked the punt, but the ball hit a Trojan and the Wildcats pounced to retain possession.
A 15-yard blocking penalty then put Whitney in pass mode, but sophomore Garrett Peacock fired long and the ball landed in the Trojans hands.
“We may of handcuffed ourselves a little bit,” Byrd said. “We were forced to throw the ball on several occasions, but overall, I thought we’d run the ball better like we had all year.”
Byrd credited Troy with a solid game plan and making second half adjustments. But essentially, the difference boiled down to Hrbacek.
“With a strong and patient runner like him, you’ve got to keep your head in the gap and you can’t one-arm tackle him,” Byrd said. “Not only do you have to find him, you have to corral him at all times.”
With 34 carries and 280 yards, Hrbacek and the Trojans chewed up the clock and never gave Whitney a chance for a comeback. Troy limited the Wildcats to just four plays in the fourth quarter and captured a string of first downs to claim the victory.
Troy advances to face Grandview (12-1) this Friday at Waco ISD Stadium in the Regional Final, while the Wildcats now reflect on an iconic season.
As the Whitney school song echoed in the stadium following the loss, Byrd sought out his seniors and told them thank you for the opportunity to be their coach.
“Never forget that this matters,” he said them. “You finished the game and it matters.”   

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