MIDLAND — The Early Longhorns avenged last year’s third round playoff loss to the Littlefield Wildcats Friday at Grande Communications Stadium to claim the Class Division I, Region I championship. The Longhorns (10-3) now advance to the state semifinals following their 17-14 win.

It wasn’t until midway through the fourth quarter that the Longhorns led the game, but they made their three-point lead stand, holding off a late Littlefield drive that got all the way to the Early 15-yard line. John Moore intercepted a Fernando Barrio pass in the end zone to seemingly seal the win.

The Longhorns’ Collin Rome fumbled as they were trying to run the final 2:45 off the clock, though, and Littlefield recovered at the Early 23-yard line. The Longhorn defense held the Wildcats to zero yards and facing fourth down, Littlefield kicker Steven Hobratschk hit the upright and missed a 40-yard field goal.

“They say that football’s a game of inches, and when that kick bounced off the upright, that’s it right there,” Early head coach Robbie Tindol said.

In last year’s game, Littlefield turned a pair of Longhorn turnovers into 14 points on the way to its 33-28 playoff win. This year the Longhorns had a pair of turnovers in the first half, but the Wildcats only managed seven first half points from them.

“We were our own worst enemy in the first half,” Tindol said. “But our defense stood strong and held them out. My hat’s really off to the defense. All game long the defense kept saving us. I kept telling them ‘defense you have to save us,’ and they did.”

Tindol said it was important for the Longhorns to get off to a good start to open the game. The Longhorns did score on their opening possession, but it was the Wildcats who actually scored first, picking up 64 yards on the ground, on their opening drive, for the game’s first touchdown. Zac Lopez rushed in from 1 yard out on a fourth and goal with 7:34 to go in the first quarter. Hobratschk added the PAT to give Littlefield an early 7-0 lead. Early answered Littlefield’s opening score with a 10-play scoring drive of its own. Rome and Bo Ross combined to pick up 60 of the 71 yards the drive covered. Rome scored on a 2-yard run with 3:59 left in the first quarter. Mitchell Bailey added the PAT kick to tie the score 7-7.

Rome ended the game with 103 yards rushing on 19 carries, and Ross had 100 yards on 17 carries.

“We know we have a good offensive line and we have good runners,” Tindol said. “Hat’s off to the offensive line. They put it on their shoulders to see if we could go toe-to-toe with them at the line of scrimmage, and they did.”

Then it was the defense that stepped up, stopping a Littlefield drive that had gone all the way to the Early 16-yard line. The Horns’ ensuing drive was highlighted by a 29-yard Ross run, but a pair of penalties near midfield stopped Early in its tracks. The Longhorns were able to pin the Wildcats deep following a 53-yard Nick Lyle punt that was downed at the Littlefield 1-yard line.

Ross and Bob Atchley each had five tackles, and Jordan Pfenenger and Cody Thompson each had three.

The Longhorn defense stopped the Wildcats ensuing drive when Ben Hager stuffed Littlefield quarterback Fernando Barrio for a 6-yard loss on third down. A muffed punt return gave Littlefield the ball back on Early’s end of the field, though. The defense stopped that drive at the Early 24, but a fumble two plays later set the Wildcats up at the Early 26-yard line.

Nine plays and 26 yards later, Littlefield held a 14-7 lead just seconds before halftime. The scoring drive was capped off by a 1-yard Lopez run with Hobratschk adding the PAT.

Tindol said the Longhorns wanted to come out on their opening drive of the second half and minimize mistakes and put points on the board.

The offense did just that and opened with a 60-yard drive that resulted in a 27-yard Bailey field goal. Ross picked up most of the yardage on five runs that covered 32 yards.

“That was a confidence booster for us. I told them at halftime that it’s never over until you say it’s over,” Tindol said. “They came back, regrouped and kept a positive attitude. That’s a real tribute to our players.”

Rome put the Longhorns ahead for the first time at the 6:55 mark of the fourth quarter when he capped off a 98-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown run. That drive was highlighted by a 59-yard reception by Sean Aly from Lyle. Bailey added the PAT putting the Longhorns ahead 17-14.

Early is tentatively scheduled to play Farmersville next Saturday evening at Waco ISD Stadium.