Thirteen point underdogs — that’s how the Paris Wildcats entered their area round playoff game against the Midlothian Heritage Jaguars on Friday night. But when all was said and done, it was the Wildcats who raised the area championship trophy in celebration following their 38-28 victory.

Counted out by most major outlets, the Wildcats entered the game with a chip on their shoulder, especially considering the fact that Paris had already trounced Midlothian Heritage by 14 on the road earlier this season.

“They thought that it wasn’t us, and that we’d only won that first game because they were making mistakes,” Paris running back Zy’kius Jackson said. “We knew that wasn’t the case.”

“We knew the things they were saying about us, but we didn’t listen to any of that,” Paris wide receiver Tyrelle Lewis added. “We let them talk, and then we came to play.”

Right from the start, the Wildcats’ offense moved the ball efficiently and methodically upfield, something that would become a trend throughout the game.

“I honestly think this was the best game from our blockers by far,” quarterback Luke Hohenberger said. “They created holes for me and the running backs all night. A ton of credit needs to go to them.”

On Paris’ opening possession, the running back tandem of Jackson and KD Washington marched the ball deep into Jaguar territory. Then, Wildcat GiTaeus Young finished off the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run that put the Wildcats up with only a few minutes off the clock.

“We established the run game last time when I ran so well, so this time they gave me the ball, I pound it, and that allowed us to pop them over the top,” Jackson said. “Then (Young) stepped up really big for us tonight.”

Midlothian Heritage, though, answered right back with a touchdown of its own. Midlothian Heritage used a balanced attack, mixing up passes with gains on the ground, and were able to draw within one, though the missed point after prevented them from drawing even with Paris.

That back-and-forth between the two offenses would become the norm for the first half. Through the first two quarters, the two offenses largely had their ways, and while both defenses still came up with stops, by and large the Wildcats and Jaguars each had no problem moving the chains.

One huge defensive stop came on Midlothian Heritage’s next offensive possession. The Jaguars were again moving the ball with great success, and with the ball on the Paris 24-yard line, it looked like another score was imminent.

However, the drive came to an abrupt stop when Wildcat defensive back Bubba Gray dove for an acrobatic interception that gave Paris the ball back.

The Paris offense got back to work following Gray’s clutch takeaway, and utilized a methodical ground attack that ate up the remainder of the first quarter and the first roughly four minutes of the second.

Midway through the drive and facing a long third and 11, Luke Hohenberger came up with a crucial third down conversion that kept the drive alive. He evaded several Jaguar defenders as he kept the drive going and took the ball into Midlothian territory.

A handful of plays later, Jackson punched the ball into the end zone for Paris’ second touchdown, and after kicker Joe Ramirez was once again true with the extra point, Paris led 14-6.

Once again, though, the Jaguars answered right back. A touchdown of their own just minutes later cut the Paris lead back to one.

On the Wildcats’ next drive, they once again were able to move the ball with a purpose, but that drive stalled out after referees missed a blatant pass interference in the end zone when a Midlothian Heritage defender bowled over Washington.

Following the missed field goal, the Jaguars wasted no time in taking their first lead of the game. They started on their own 21-yard line, and it took them just three plays to find their way into the end zone. Then, they converted a two-point conversion that erased the earlier miss PAT, and gave the Jaguars a brief 21-14 lead.

The Wildcats saw Midlothian Heritage’s three-play drive and knew just the way to one-up them. Paris needed just two plays to score its third touchdown of the game — a huge run by Luke Hohenberger and a pass up the middle to Washington. The point after was again true, and just like that, the game was again tied at 21 points apiece.

With barely a minute left on the clock, it looked like the teams would enter halftime in a stalemate. However, the Jaguars had different plans. They executed perfectly as they marched towards the end zone, and punched the ball in as time expired in the half, nailed the extra point, and took a 28-21 lead into the locker room.

While the first half was a shootout between a pair of well-oiled offenses, the second half was anything but. The Wildcat defensive unit made the necessary adjustments during halftime, and the Midlothian Heritage touchdown at the end of the first half would prove to be the last points the Jaguars would score.

“We made a lot of adjustments and shut them down in the second half,” linebacker Jalen Gray said.

“I told them, ‘That last play before half is going to define your season and define who we are, and that’s not who we are,’” head coach Steven Hohenberger said. “Whether you won or lost, it’s how you respond.”

The defensive spark was seen on Midlothian Heritage’s opening drive of the second half. The Paris defense hounded the ball with a tenacity not seen in the first half, and linebackers Lain Atwood and Gray, as well as 

defensive lineman Satchel Swain, all had thunderous tackles that sent the already-excited Wildcat fanbase into a furor.

And while Midlothian Heritage’s offense was mostly stymied in the second half, the Paris offense was as lively in the second half as it was in the first. On the Wildcats’ opening drive, they once again moved the ball extremely well with their dynamic corps of running backs. In addition to the trio of Jackson, Washington and Young, also joining the ground attack on the drive was Lyric Tredwell.

After moving the ball with relative ease, the 12-play drive was capped off by Jackson’s second touchdown of the game on a 14-yard scamper down the sideline. Ramirez nailed the point after, and the score was again tied.

For Steven Hohenberger, the response by the Wildcats after the demoralizing end to the first half was a perfect encapsulation of four words that have become a mantra for this team: Paris fight never dies.

“Not only did they score the last play of the half, but they were getting the ball to start the second,” Steven Hohenberger said. “Here’s what I told them: Always get up, never let anybody dictate your future (and) you’re in control of your emotions. There’s going to be highs and lows in your life; don’t ever doubt who you are.”

The Wildcat defense demonstrated their reinvigorated intensity on Midlothian Heritage’s ensuing drive. Paris forced a very quick three-and-out, punctuated by a big sack by Council on the Jaguar quarterback.

Then, Paris retook the lead 35-28, when Johquan Caldwell punched the ball into the end zone from about nine yards out.

The drive was kept alive by Luke Hohenberger and Lewis, as the junior quarterback found his wide receiver for a big gain on a fourth down conversion earlier in the drive.

The teams traded empty drives over the next few minutes, but then in the fourth quarter, Midlothian Heritage seemed to be on the cusp of tying the game up.

With the Jaguars only 13 yards from the end zone, Dakarian Robinson came up with one of the biggest defensive stops of the season when he intercepted the Jaguars and gave Paris the ball back with minutes to go in the game.

“I want to give credit to my coaches for putting me in that position, and I want to thank — I can’t stress this enough — Rashad Wilson for tipping the ball which allowed me to come down with it,” Robinson said.

Ramirez went on to stretch the lead to a two-possession game with a clutch field goal with just under two minutes left in the game.

Then, on the Jaguars’ last-ditch attempt to score, Council sealed the win for Paris with an interception — the team’s third of the day — and the celebration was on.

In addition to the interception, Council finished the game with 11 total tackles, including a pair of sacks.

“(That comes down to) the way our players practice,” Steven Hohenberger said. “One of the ways we practice during the week is we do what we call, ‘ball down’ on Tuesday where it is life, and it’s about competition.”

With the win, Paris will go on to play Melissa in the regional round of the playoffs next week. That game will provide an answer to one of the big questions from the regular season, because though the Wildcats and Melissa Cardinals are in-district rivals, the two teams were unable to face each other this season due to Covid-19 protocols.

Paris was saddled with a forfeit loss, and the Cardinals went on to finish second in the district. Now, they’ll be able to finally take the field against one another.

Jackson led Paris’ explosive offense, finishing the game with 155 huge rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Young also crossed the centennial mark, finishing with 112 yards to go with his touchdown. Luke Hohenberger ran for 75 yards and picked up 49 more through the air, and threw a touchdown as well. Washington, Tredwell and Caldwell all rounded out the extremely balanced Paris ground attack, rushing for 63, 32 and 20 yards respectively.

In total, the team racked up 506 yards of offense, having their way with the Jaguar defense.

Atwood led the team defensively, racking up 13 total tackles. Trenterious Tennon had seven tackles, Bubba Gray had six and Jalen Gray had five.

“It feels great,” Jackson said of being area champions. “I’m just excited to keep playing. We’re getting hot — hitting our stride — and our goal is state.”

Tommy Culkin is a staff writer for The Paris News. He can be reached at 903-785-6972 or at tommy.culkin@theparisnews.com.

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