Giving new head coach Brent Finney his first win, Class 3A, DII Clifton Cubs open the season with 20-12 victory over Merkel in Cisco
CISCO – Playing before a large traveling fan base despite opening the 2022 Texas high school football season on the road at a neutral site, the Class 3A, Division II Clifton Cubs enjoyed the best of all worlds last Thursday night.
By holding off the Merkel Badgers in the fourth quarter to post a solid 20-12 victory, the Cubs handed first-year head coach Brent Finney his first career win and equaled their total number of wins in 2021 at Cisco’s Chelsey Field. And Clifton did so on the strength of an impressive ground control Wing-T offensive attack by piling up 302 yards rushing while dominating all facets of the game.
“Winning the first game is huge,” said Finney, who served as a Cub assistant coach for the last 18 years. “That first win always seems to be the most difficult to achieve. So getting it done on the road in the first game was very nice.”
Junior running back Parker Tunnell led the Cubs with 120 yards rushing, junior fullback Riley Finney powered his way to 84 yards and a touchdown, and senior Jadyn Simmons broke off a 21-yard scoring run in the first quarter, while senior quarterback Trent Guinn completed three of four passes for 34 yards.
With Clifton’s offense proving to be unstoppable throughout the game, the Cubs managed to be their own worst enemy at times as a number of good runs were called back by penalties.
“We had some first game nerves to overcome, and we have to eliminate our pre-snap penalties,” Finney said. “But overall, we were pleased with our blocking execution and efficiency in the passing game. Anytime you rush for over 300 yards and complete 75 percent of your passes, you have had a pretty good night.
“We have to focus and be able to finish drives, especially in the red zone. We cannot afford to miss any scoring opportunities.”
After dominating the first quarter, the Cubs finally got on the scoreboard when Simmons capitalized on the effects of a misdirection play to dart 21 yards for the first touchdown of the season. Senior quarterback and placekicker Trent Guinn cleared the crossbar for the extra point to give Clifton a 7-0 lead with 50 seconds remaining in the opening period.
Less than two minutes later, senior Makail Brandenberger blocked a Badger punt attempt out of the endzone for a safety. And shortly after Merkel’s ensuing free kick, the Cubs cashed in with Guinn’s 32-yard field goal to build a 12-0 lead with 7:08 left before halftime.
“I was very pleased with our special teams,” Finney said. “Lots of times in season openers, special teams can be an issue. But I thought our kids did a good job.”
But Merkel quarterback Joey Zink connected with wide receiver Maddox O’Malley for a 23-yard touchdown pass with only seven seconds left in the first half to get back into the game.
In the third quarter, the Cubs responded with a sustained scoring drive, culminating with Finney fighting his way into the end zone from five yards out for the score before Parker Tunnell extended the ball over the goal line up the middle for the two-point conversion to rebuild Clifton’s lead to 20-6 with 4:35 left in the period.
But the Badgers refused to go away quietly. Zink once again connected with O’Malley, this time for a stunning 69-yard scoring strike to make it a one-score game with 3:06 remaining on the clock.
But with the exception of the late drive at the end of the first half and the big play in the fourth quarter, the Cub defense contained Merkel most of the game. Clifton shut down the Badger running game to finish with negative yards rushing while allowing just over 100 yards of total offense.
“Defensively, I thought our kids played a great game,” Finney said. “Coach (Zane) Williams did a great job mixing it up and bringing pressure. The defense did a good job of keeping us in the game when we had a slow start offensively in the first quarter.”
Brandenberger led the Cub defensive unit with seven tackles and two tackles for losses, followed by senior Peyten Urbanovsky, senior Caden Page and sophomore Brody Baggett with five takedowns apiece. Senior Carter Tunnell pulled down an interception, Urbanovsky recorded a sack and Baggett collected two tackles for losses.
This week, the Cubs will be on the road once again to take on the Class 2A, Division I Rio Vista Eagles, picked by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine to finish second in District 7-2A, DI to 15th-ranked Italy.
Despite piling up 440 yards of total offense, Rio Vista (0-1) dropped their season opener to Dawson, 46-35, on the road last Friday night. Senior quarterback t Pritchett completed 20 of 34 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for another 103 yards in the losing effort.
“Rio Vista has a lot of returners and will be at home for their first home game,” Finney said. “They have a good returning quarterback and throw the ball well.
While the Cubs remain a work in progress, Finney walked away from the season opener feeling good about his team and the prospects for the season. “Obviously, we have to clean up some things, but I am very proud of how our kids and staff kept responding to adversity,” Finney said. “They never let up and always came back and responded when bad things happened.”
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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