Class 3A, DII Clifton Cubs secure first playoff berth in three seasons with 32-26 overtime thriller in Florence, set for bi-district clash with Tidehaven in rematch of 1967 state title game
It’s a postseason rematch that’s been 55 years in waiting. But the fact that the Clifton Cubs will be returning to the Class 3A, Division II playoffs for the first time in three years ranks as the only thing that really matters.
Getting back to the postseason did not come easy. It took all 10 games over the regular season and overtime in the finale before the Cubs earned a playoff berth as the fourth-place team coming out of a tough District 13-3A, DII. Clifton had to overcome an inspired group of seniors in Florence to rally and pull out a thrilling, nail-biting 32-26 overtime victory over the Buffaloes last Thursday night in Stampede Stadium.
“I cannot express how proud I am of these young men and our staff,” Clifton’s first-year head coach Brent Finney said. “Transitions are never easy. These kids battled through adversity and injuries all season. It would have been really easy to give up after losing the first three district games, but they never did. These guys set a goal back in the first of August to get back to the playoffs and they made it happen.”
Returning to the playoffs for the first time in three years, the Cubs (2-3 in district, 3-7 overall) will travel to Bastrop to take on District 14-3A, DII champion El Maton Tidehaven in a Bi-District playoff matchup at 7 p.m. Thursday. Marking the first time Clifton has faced Tidehaven since the 1967 Class 1A State Championship game, the Tigers (6-0, 8-2) will come into the game riding a six-game winning streak after wrapping up the regular season with a 28-14 victory over playoff-bound Van Vleck last Thursday.
“Obviously, Tidehaven is a good football team and a district champion,” Finney said. “They have a couple very dynamic players on offense that will be a challenge to contain. Defensively, they are very aggressive. We will have to be able to play ball control offense and try to keep their offense off the field as much as possible.”
In some ways, the district finale at Florence with a playoff berth on the line proved to be a microcosm of the entire season in one game. But in the end, the Cubs return to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons in the first year with a new head coach.
“Give lots of credit to Florence, they played a great game,” Finney said. “It was their senior night and with 15 seniors, they played a very inspired game.”
Junior fullback Riley Finney powered his way to 135 yards and four touchdowns, while senior quarterback Trent Guinn connected with senior Carter Tunnell on a nine-yard scoring strike to provide the scoring for Clifton.
With the game knotted at 26-26 following regulation, the Cubs won the toss and elected to go on defense first. After the Clifton defense held Florence on downs, the Cubs struck quickly as Guinn connected with senior Jordan Enriquez for a 22-yard gain before Finney powered his way into the end zone for the winning score.
Jumping out to a 13-0 lead in the first half, the Cub offense got off to a strong start, but then struggled to put anything together for almost two quarters. But with their backs against the wall and trailing by two scores with 4:17 left in the third quarter, the Cubs turned it on to defuse the momentum Florence built in the second half.
“After a huge momentum swing in the third quarter, our guys responded and just refused to give up,” Finney said. “The way they stepped up in the fourth quarter and in overtime is just a testament to the fight that these kids have developed all season long.”
After Florence produced 23 unanswered points to take a 10-point lead late in the third quarter, the Cubs finally answered as Finney and junior running back Parker Tunnell went to work on the ground with an eight-play, 68-yard scoring drive. Then just 1:22 later, the Cubs capitalized on an interception to quickly score again to recapture the lead, 26-23, with 11:39 left in the game.
Tunnell finished with 95 yards rushing on 18 carries as the Cubs pounded their way to 227 yards on the ground and 313 yards of total offense.
“The offense was able to go score and get the lead back in the fourth,” Finney said. “And in overtime, we had a huge completion to set up the winning score.”
Likewise, the Clifton defense opened strong, even though the Cubs struggled defending the quick pass to the wing for most of the game. But late in the game with the win on the line, the defense stepped up as Finney led Clifton defensively with 10 tackles, followed by Carter Tunnell with eight and senior Peyten Urbanovsky with seven, while senior Mason Williams and junior Ervin Rodriguez came up with crucial interceptions.
The Buffaloes stormed back in the fourth quarter by marching down the field before stalling and kicking a field goal to tie the game with 7:55 remaining. Florence got the ball back and went to work again before the Cubs held at their own 19-yard-line. Senior AJ Lingo powered his way up the middle to block senior placekicker Angel Perez’s 36-yard field goal attempt to send the game into overtime.
“Coach Williams made some adjustments,” Finney said. “The defense really stepped up in the fourth quarter, and then huge in overtime.”
Interestingly, the Cubs and Tidehaven have a history of playing in the postseason, as the Tigers defeated Clifton, 7-6, in the 1967 Class 1A State Championship game. While it has no relevance on this year’s matchup, it’s hard to look past the history connecting the two schools.
“It is always interesting to have some history with an opponent,” Finney said. “Although that game was over 50 years ago, we have always heard about that game. Being a Clifton native, it is very cool to hear fans talk about that game and to spark some additional excitement for the playoffs.”
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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