25 Days of Champions -- 1996 Gordon


Six-man expert

The 1996 Six-Man state championship game was, dare I say the greatest state championship game ever. It had everything: big plays, a great comeback, a dramatic finish, and controversy.

Gordon had a solid program for years under head coach Nelson Campbell, but had not achieved the ultimate goal of a state title. In 1994, they advanced to quarterfinals before falling to Zephyr, 54-32, and finishing with an 11-1-1 record. In 1995, they again fell in the quarterfinals to Panther Creek, 81-42, and improved on their previous record, finishing 12-1. Expectations were high for a senior-heavy 1996 team, as they returned 19 lettermen and every single offensive and defensive starter. Dave Campbell’s Magazine had them pegged as the pre-season #1 team, and Granger Huntress in his third year of ranking and covering six-man football had the Longhorns in at #3 (Editor’s note: although I wrote the section, they did not use my preseason rankings yet).

The Longhorns’ opponent in the state title game would be the Whitharral Panthers, who paralleled Gordon in many ways. Both ran similar offensive styles, mixing between various spread formation sets and an unbalanced line I-formation (often called a J-Bird set). The Panthers had also advanced to the quarterfinals in 1995 before bowing out and had a solid group of upperclassmen returning, with 9-of-12 starters back for the 1996 campaign. The preseason rankings would be the exact reverse of Gordon’s. “The Huntress Report” tabbed Whitharral as the pre-season #1 team, while Dave Campbell’s had the Panthers at #3.

Gordon had a few tough games. The season opener was a big showdown with state-ranked Zephyr, which the Longhorns won 34-8. Sports Illustrated had a reporter and photographer present to cover this game and did a spread on six-man football in Texas later in the year.

Gordon again had some national publicity, as they invited a six-man football team from Canada, Bjorkdale, down to play for their fifth game of the season. In that exhibition game, which had no mercy rule, Gordon won 92-24. Their next game was a big one against a very talented district-rival Strawn which they defeated easily by 44 points, 72-28. The Longhorns cruised until they met up with Trinidad in the second round of the playoffs, who gave them all they could handle, as Gordon eventually won, 49-40. They defeated Zephyr for a second time in the quarterfinals by 44, to advance to the semifinals against Milford, who had represented the East in the state game the last two seasons. Gordon battled with the Bulldogs and edged them out 30-23, to advance to their first ever state title game appearance.

Whitharral, under head coach Gerry Gartrell, entered the state game 14-0, having survived a gauntlet of west teams in the playoffs, all of which had size, power and speed. They defeated Guthrie, 64-30, in bi-district, Groom, 68-32, in the second round, Southland, 44-32, in the quarterfinals, and Chillicothe, 75-28, in the semifinals. The Panthers defense, despite giving up some points in the playoffs, were holding their opponents to 13.2 points a game while the Longhorn defense was just as good, allowing 14 points a game.

Prior to the 1996 season, the furthest Gordon had advanced in the playoffs was the semifinals in 1981, where head coach Nelson Campbell’s team was beaten by Whitharral, on their way to their first state title, 54-18.

State Championship Game – Saturday Dec. 14th 2:30pm in Sweetwater’s Mustang Bowl
Whitharral received the opening kickoff and put together a six play, 60-yard drive that ended with an eight-yard touchdown pass from Michael Lopez to Jason Cook, the pat kick failed and Whitharral took the early 6-0 lead.

The Panthers then kicked a perfect onside kick that Michael Lopez recovered right before the ball could go out of bounds. On the very next play, out of a spread formation, Justin Stracener found Seth Dockery in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown pass. The kick again failed and just like that, Whitharral was up 12-0.

Gordon would start their first possession on at midfield after failed onside attempt. Six plays later, the big Longhorn running back, John Leven, rushed in for a seven-yard score. Jason Sizemore’s kick was good and Gordon was on the board, trailing 12-8.

On the Panther’s next possession, after moving the ball downfield into Gordon territory, and facing a third-and-short situation, the Longhorns came up with a big tackle for about a ten-yard loss and forced Whitharral to punt, which was shanked.

Gordon, taking over on their own 28, moved the ball using backs Leven and Sizemore. On a second-and-short play, Whitharral hit Sizemore hard in the backfield for a loss. An incomplete pass on third down led to a fourth down attempt. The short pass out of a spread garnered just one yard, and the ball went over on downs back to Whitharral at their own 29.

The Panthers couldn’t get much going to start the drive and faced a fourth-and-long. This time, instead of punting, they lined up in spread and pitched back to Michael Lopez, who avoided the Longhorn’s hard-rush by splitting three defenders, breaking to the far sideline and sprinting 47-yards for a touchdown. Brandon Rogers PAT kick was good this time and the Panthers took a 20-8 lead, with 1:09 left in the first quarter.

On their next possession, Gordon quarterback Jim Kostiha tried to get their passing game going, but couldn’t connect with a few open receivers and the Longhorns went three-and-out. Their ensuing punt was perfect, bouncing down and out of bounds at the Whitharral four-yard line. One play later, the first quarter would come to an end, with Whitharral in total control, up 20-8 and with the ball.

On their second play of the drive, first of the second quarter, out of the unbalanced line I-formation, wingback Matt Thacker took the quick handoff, dodged a defender and scampered for a big 20-yard gain. A 15-yard personal foul penalty by Gordon tacked on 15 more yards at the end of the run and the Panthers were on the prowl in Longhorn territory.

A few nice runs by Brandon Rogers took Whitharral down to the three-yard line. He was again given the rock and scored on a dive up the middle. Rogers then added the extra two points on the PAT kick and Whitharral was now ahead 28-8, with 8:10 left in the second.

On the kickoff, Whitharral kicked a bounding ground ball up the middle of the field, catching the Longhorns sleeping and recovered it. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the play was ruled Gordon’s ball, due to a Panther player being offside. The tough luck with penalties didn’t stop for the Panthers.

With Gordon, facing a second-and-seven and now running a spread offense, The Longhorns were sacked for big loss. However, one of the Panther linemen grabbed the spreadback’s face mask and the penalty resulted in big yardage and an automatic first down for the Longhorns. On the next play, a nice pass and catch moved the ball down to the Panther 16-yard line, but another personal foul on the Panthers moved the ball further, all the way to the eight, for a first-and-goal for Gordon. On third-and-goal from the three, Leven got the call again and powered in for the touchdown and the added PAT made the score, 28-16, with 5:55 left in the first half.

On the next possession, Whitharral, facing a third-and-short at their 29-yard line, broke free on a sweep out of a spread formation and scored, but the penalties continued and it was called back for holding at the Gordon 23. The play resulted in a first down with the ball spotted at the Longhorn 33. Another holding penalty on the next play moved it back to their own 33. Then, thanks to a bobbled pitch, Gordon caught them in the backfield again for a 10-yard loss, setting up second-and-35. After a short gain, the Panthers committed yet another penalty, this time a block in the back. This would’ve set up and even third-and-longer, but Gordon declined, setting up a fourth-and-28. Whitharral punted the ball out of the end zone, giving the Longhorns the ball at their own 20.

A quick 13-yard gain on a screen pass made it second-and-short, however, Leven was stripped of the ball on a dive and Whitharral recovered at the Longhorn 32. Whitharral made it all the way down to the three-yard line and with just 44 seconds left in the first half, Brandon Rogers rushed in for the touchdown. Adding the PAT made it 36-16 in favor of the Panthers. Gordon would run a few plays but the score at the end of the first half would remain, 36-16.

Whitharral was in complete control of this game and had the momentum going into the locker room, having scored right before half. The second half would be a totally different story.

Gordon started the second half with the ball at their own 20 and looking to get back into the game. Their first play was a 19-yard run by Sizemore on a counter out of a J-Bird formation. He was then tackled for a five-yard loss on the next play. Then on second down, Sizemore gained those five back on a scamper out of the spread and then connected for a long pass on third, taking them down to the seven-yard line for a first-and-goal. A play-action pass out of a tight formation on the next play saw Jim Kostiha connect with Jeremy Jackson for a touchdown. The PAT was good and with 7:52 left in the third quarter the score was 36-24 and Gordon was back in business.

After some nice runs took them into Longhorn territory, the Panthers faced fourth-and-four at the Gordon 33. Rogers took the handoff out of a tight formation, ran around the right end, and sprinted untouched for the score. Gordon blocked the PAT and the score was now Whitharral 42, Gordon 24, with 4:58 left in the third quarter.

Gordon started at their own 20 again and this time were held by the Panthers. They punted the ball and it was downed at the Panthers’ own five-yard line. The Longhorns only allowed Whitharral to gain two yards and a loss of down penalty for illegal grounding on third down moved Whitharral back to their own three-yard line. On the punt, little defensive end Jesus Tijerina pushed his way through the line and got a hand up and blocked the punt. The ball rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety, allowing Gordon to tack on two more points. They still trailed 42-26, but the Longhorns were getting the ball back after kicking a perfect punt, holding the Panther offense and the getting a huge blocked punt. They had just swung the momentum in their favor for the first time in the game, with 2:30 still left in the third quarter.

Gordon began their next drive at their own 37 and after two long runs and a face mask penalty, they had the ball at the Panthers five-yard line. It took four plays from there, but eventually Kostiha hit Sizemore standing at the one, who was hit immediately, but turned around and pushed himself into the end zone for a four-yard touchdown catch. The PAT was blocked and the score was now 42-32. Whitharral would be in possession of the ball as the third quarter ended, with the score Whitharral 42, Gordon 32.

Gordon’s defense stepped-up when Whitharral decided to go for it on fourth down, deep in their own territory. The Longhorns came up with the stop and took over at the Panther 23. After driving the field and the drive almost stalled, a pass interference in the end zone gave Gordon a fresh set of downs at the 10-yard line. Two plays later, Sizemore would run in for a three-yard score. The kick was again blocked and the Panther lead was now just four, 42-38, with 7:54 left in the game.

Facing fourth-and-one, Rogers broke loose, taking the ball down into the red zone. Again, facing fourth down at the 12, Rogers converted on a run, setting up a first-and-goal from the five. However, after a short run and a holding penalty moved the Panthers back to the 12, Rogers eventually caught Jason Dobrovolny for a 12-yard touchdown pass. Rogers’ kick was good and the Panther lead was pushed up to 12 points, 50-38, with 4:28 remaining.

Needing two scores, Gordon would start strong, returning the ball all the way to their own 39. The Longhorns converted on fourth-and-seven on a Kostiha scramble out of the spread when he dove just past the first down marker. On the very next play, out of the J-bird formation, Kostiha hit Tijerina for a 26-yard touchdown play-action pass. Gordon faked a PAT kick, when the snap went straight to the kicker Sizemore, who passed to a wide-open Leven for the 1-point conversion, cutting the score to 50-45 with 3:05 left to play. We did not know how important that single point would be.

Gordon kicked the ball deep and Whitharral almost ran it back, had it not been for a horse collar tackle at the Panther 30-yard line (this was legal at the time). Facing a third-and-nine, Whitharral, looking to pass out of a spread formation, was bottled up and tackled for a loss, setting up a fourth-and-14 at the 21. The Panthers punted and the ball took a Gordon bounce and was downed at Gordon 29.

Lining up in a spread, Kostiha dumped it off to Sizemore, who ran out of bounds after a 13-yard gain. On second down, Sizemore rushed for a four-yard gain and a first down.

First-and-15 at the Panther 34.

Still in the spread, Kostiha was forced up the middle, but tackled for a two-yard loss.

Second- and-17 at the Panther 36, with 1:13 left in the game. Gordon burned a time out, and then Whitharral burned a time out.

Gordon came out in a J-Bird formation and Kostiha’s play-action pass fell incomplete.

Third-and-17, still at the 36.

The Longhorns set up in a classic spread formation. Kostiha avoids a sack, running up the middle toward the line and throws a bomb perfectly over a defender and into the arms of Jeremy Jackson for the go-ahead touchdown.

But the play was called back on a penalty, as the referees ruled Kostiha had thrown the ball after he had passed the line of scrimmage. Here is where things start to get controversial.

The penalty should be a five-yards and a loss of down. The refs moved the ball back to the Whitharral 39, but failed to enforce the loss of down and instead replayed third down. So instead of fourth-and-22, it was third-and-22.

On the next play, still in a classic spread formation, Kostiha scrambled around in the backfield and broke up field, with the help of a big crack back block for an 11-yard gain. Then on “4th down” and what would forever be known as the “5th down play”, Kostiha hit upback Sizemore on a short dump pass. Sizemore shook off two tacklers and broke another downfield, as he ran into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown, with two seconds left to play in the game. Gordon’s sideline was so excited, they received an unsportsmanlike penalty that was enforced on the PAT try, which failed and the score was now Gordon 51, Whitharral 50.

Whitharral fielded the kickoff on a knee at their own seven-yard line, giving them one play. They gained some good yardage on a short pass, but it wasn’t enough, as a Gordon defender made the tackle and secured their first-ever state championship, in the closest six-man football state title game ever.

Whitharral out-gained Gordon rushing, 283-168, passing, 170-168, and thus in total yardage, 453-336. The Panthers had more first downs 18-17 and won the turnover battle 1-0 (the only turnover being a Gordon fumble). However, Gordon came up with the big plays in timely fashion and outscored their opponents 35-14 in the second half.

The game lives on, partly because of the great comeback by Gordon, but more so because of the refereeing on the final Gordon drive. Gordon has always maintained that on the loss of down play, where they scored and the touchdown nullified, that Jim Kostiha never crossed the line of scrimmage, and thus it was poetic justice that the refs failed to enforce a loss of down, allowing them to score two plays later. ESPN had film crews on hand for a short segment that aired in February about the Gordon Longhorns. In that piece, they provided video proof that Kostiha had not cross the line of scrimmage and it was a bad call by the refs. However, bad calls happen, the call was made and the fact remains that a slip of the mind by the referee crew allowed Gordon to have an extra play in which to score.

-I was at this game sitting with Duane Hyde, Thomas Hyde, Karry Owens…all of which are in the Texas Six-Man Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame…and my teammate Nathan Hayes. Thomas Hyde knew immediately the mistake by the refs on the infamous “5th down” play, while many folks didn’t take notice to it.
-As a spectator, I will never forget the blocked punt and late long over the shoulder touchdown catch by Jesus Tijerina, who stood about 5-5 and weight about 145. Myself being just a little freshman, to see him pull off those two crucial plays, was inspiring. Even though both Jason Sizemore and Jim Kostiha had huge performances, in my mind, Tijerina was the MVP.
-For this article, I reviewed the game film and used stats from the Abilene Reporter News article about the game.
-This had the best program ever for a six-man state game…it was a special edition of Granger Huntress’ “The Huntress Report” newsletter.
-Personally, I think best venue to host a state game has been Sweetwater’s Mustang Bowl.
-Granger always refers to the ESPN-Kostiha-pass video as the “Zapruder film of six-man”, mostly to annoy people from Gordon (at least that's what they think). <--- editor's note

So what was the story behind Gordon being on the homeside, being Home on the scoreboard and wearing white? Coaches preference? Or did i just see everything wrong
If my memory serves me correctly, I believe the white jerseys were worn because of the Horns' poor performance in the second round while wearing the black. I think we wore the white for superstitious reasons...but I could be wrong.