Zephyr comes within one victory of first state championship game appearance since 1988

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of five stories chronicling the top sports performances of the 2015 calendar year.

Following a 2-2 start to the season, the Zephyr Bulldogs reeled off nine consecutive victories to earn the Region III-A Division I championship and clinch a spot in the state semifinals.

The Bulldogs (11-3) came up one win shy of a second state championship game appearance — with the only other coming in 1988 — as Zephyr was ousted by eventual state champion Abbott.

Zephyr’s triumphs during its nine-game win streak came at the expense of Blanket (62-12), Rising Star (84-38), Lingleville (58-8), Evant (forfeit), Santa Anna (104-56), Lometa (50-0), Paint Rock (72-8), Newcastle (20-12) and Rochelle (52-44).

The regional championship victory over Rochelle may have been the most improbable of the season for Bulldogs, as Zephyr overcame a 26-0 deficit.

“The emotions were crazy,” Zephyr head coach Shannon Williams said after the victory. “Going into a game like that with the offense we have, I thought the playing conditions would favor us, but we turned the ball over three times pretty quick and before you knew it we were down big and having to fight back.

“But that win showed the type of kids we have. They fought back with a never quit attitude, and that was huge.”

Down 32-8, the Bulldogs scored 44 of the game’s final 56 points.

The turning point came early in the fourth quarter when Zephyr scored three touchdowns in a span of 1:20. The first was Bishop Norman’s 55-yard run that, combined with Kason King’s extra-point kick, rallied the Bulldogs to a 38-38 tie with 8:05 left to play.

On the first two plays after the ensuing kickoff, Rochelle fumbled the exchanges from center.

The first fumble cost the Hornets a 12-yard loss. The second fumble cost them the lead as Zephyr’s Jacob King returned the miscue 4 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Kason King’s kick gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the night at 46-38 with 7:25 left.

Rochelle fumbled the ball again on its first play after the next kickoff. Two plays later, Norman broke a 41-yard touchdown run that gave Zephyr a 52-38 lead with 6:45 to play.

Norman finished with 211 yards rushing and four touchdowns against Rochelle, and for the season he rushed for 2,522 yards and 40 touchdowns.

The week prior against Newcastle, Zephyr trailed 6-0 after one quarter but closed to within 12-8 at halftime and held Newcastle scoreless in the second half, seizing a 14-12 edge in the third period.

Zephyr finished with 269 yards of total offense, including 243 rushing, as Norman rumbled for 190 yards and touchdowns of 5, 8 and 2 yards.

“We feel like we can put points on the board, then you play a game like the one against Newcastle and it was a dogfight,” Williams said after the victory. “Their defensive front is the best we’ve seen and probably will see. We knew that would be a game where whoever made mistakes wasn’t going to win, and Newcastle had the one turnover and that was the difference.”

In what turned out to be the season finale against Abbott, Zephyr — known for being a second-half team — didn’t make it past the second period as the Panthers tallied 24 points in the first quarter and 29 in the second.

“They knew exactly everything we were going to do and exactly how we were going to do it,” Williams said. “They are very well coached. We got our heads down. They got the momentum, and we never could get it back.”

Zephyr’s 29-player playoff roster consisted of only five seniors.

“When you think about how hard we worked to get to this point, it makes it really tough when it’s over,” Williams said. “Hopefully the younger guys will realize this was the start of building a foundation and that we’re only going to get better.

“We had a great season. Anytime you’re still playing in December, you’re doing something right.”