Missed scoring opportunities and the inability to stop Houston's run game resulted in a season-ending 30-20 loss for Winona in the opening ground of the 3A payoffs.
“Anytime you don't go as far as you want to, it's a disappointment,” said Coach Joey Tompkins. “I'm not disappointed in my kids, but I feel like we could have done better.”
The tone was set early. On the opening possession of the game, Winona moved from its own 30 to a third-and two at the Houston 12. Quarterback An'Darius Coffey accounted for 63 yards with two runs and two completions.
But Coffey was thrown for losses on the next two plays and the Tigers turned the ball over at the 26. Houston then drove 74 yards on 12 running plays, scoring on a 15-yard run by quarterback Derrion Pulphus. Bobby Townsend ran in the two-point conversion to make it 8-0.
Houston made it 14-0 early in the second quarter on a 31-yard drive set up by a blocked punt. Zavian Ford scored on a five-year run.
Winona came back to tie the game 14-14 at the half on TD passes of 30 and 17 yards from Coffey to Dadarion Small. Cade Eldridge made the PAT after each TD.
Houston got another short field early in the third quarter on a fumble recovery at the Winona 35. The Hilltoppers turned it into a touchdown on a 23 yard run by Townsend and Pulphus tacked on a two-point conversion run for a 22-14 lead.
The Tigers cut it to 22-20 late in the third quarter on a four-play 69-yard drive that was all Coffey. He had runs of 27 and 15 yards, completed a 22-yard pass to Robert McMath to the Houston five, then ran it in for the score. But he was stopped on a run for the two-point conversion, leaving the Hilltoppers with a two-point lead.
Houston increased the lead to 30-20 early in the fourth quarter with a 62-yard drive on eight running plays. Pulphus had five carries for 47 yards, including the final 13. The Hilltoppers were assessed a five-yard procedure penalty on the conversion, moving the ball back to the eight, but Pulphus was still able to run it in to make it a two-score game.
Winona had two fourth quarter possessions. The first ended with an interception. Winona's last ditch effort reached the Houston three in the final minute, but the Tigers were unable to punch it in. It was the fourth time Winona failed to score after crossing midfield.
“The quarterback (Pulphus) hurt us a lot in the running game. He's someone we hadn't seen much on film,” Tompkins said.
Pulphus was moved from running back to quarterback the final game of the regular season. He completed only one pass for five yards against Winona, but ran 14 times for 130 yards. Eight Hilltoppers carried the ball 36 times for 328 yards.
With starting tailback Blake Cooper sidelined by an ankle injury, Coffey became almost the entire Winona offense. He accounted for all by 15 of the Tigers 388 yards, passing for 250 and running for 123.
“That has hurt us the last two or three weeks,” Tompkins said of Cooper's injury. “He's not only a good runner, but he's also a good blocking back. We knew going in we would have a tough time running and we did.”
McMath had nine receptions for 80 yards, Adavion Hargrove four for 73 and Small three for 72. McMath was the Tigers' top receiver for the season with 63 for 973 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Winona finishes 8-3. The Tigers were second in Region 3-3A with a 3-1 record. A late season 42-36 loss to Amanda Elzy in the game that decided the region championship proved costly because it meant the Tigers had to face Houston, third in 4-3A, in the opening round. Amanda Elzy drew Hatley, fourth in 4-3A, and won 32-14.
Houston (9-3) will be at home Friday for a second round game with North Panola.