BRYAN — Merchants love Black Friday.
Madisonville senior running back Cornelius Merchant ran 23 times for 263 yards and four touchdowns, jump-starting and powerfully closing it out for the Mustangs in a 45-35 Class 4A Region II area championship win over the Lorena Leopards.
Merchant also caught a 47-yard second-quarter scoring pass at Merrill Green Staduum that provided a scoring gap from which Lorena never recovered. It was his only catch, but he finished with 310 overall yards.
“All year, all year,” said Madisonville coach Rusty Nail. “(Merchant) is huge for us.”
The win gave the Mustangs an 11-1 record, a school record for victories in one season. Madisonville will face West Orange-Stark, which won its 37th consecutive game, 17-3 over Mexia.
Madisonville’s regional title game against the two-time defending 4A Division II champion is set for Friday at 7 p.m. Friday at New Caney’s Texan Drive Stadium.
Lorena, whose 1-6 start included a 39-36 loss to Madisonville in non-district, was 0-2 in district, but the Leopards changed their spot. They reached this point by putting together a four-game winning streak.
They gave themselves chances to get back in the game, with Ben Craig catching three of his four scoring passes after halftime, including a 32-yard slant pass from Bradley Lina that produced the final score with 1:19 remaining. Lorena did cover an onside kick but threw four incomplete passes.
Craig caught eight passes for 90 yards and Thor Hoffman’s fourth-quarter running kept Lorena in the fight. He ran 17 times for 181 yards.
“We played each other and know each other well,” Nail said. “My former boss is the offensive line coach and the principal and Ray (Biles, Lorena coach) go back a long way. There were not secrets. It was a good game.”
The real backbreaking play was Merchant’s high-stepping 32-yard touchdown run that gave Madisonville a 45-28 advantage with 4:40 left.
The Mustangs jumped in front early and quickly when Merchant broke free for touchdown runs of 58 and 55 in the first 5:06 of the game.
Lorena’s defense set the table for a comeback when Hayden Schrader picked off Madisonville quarterback Ben Phillips. It took the Leopards seven plays to traverse the 48 yards, with Hunter Hudgens delivering a looping 39-yard scoring pass over a defender to the right side for a touchdown.
Logan Davison’s fumble recovery gave the Leopards the ball again at their 45 and Bradley Lina threw across the middle in what appeared to be a sure interception. It became a touchdown when the ball skipped through the hands of Mustangs defensive back Johnny Simpson while Ben Craig anxiously awaited the ball. It finally arrived and he stepped untouched in the end zone to even the score at 14-14.
That lasted for 15 seconds. Kendall Moffett fielded the kickoff on the run at his four and angled to the left side of the Merrill Green Stadium turf. By midfield, he had enough space to breeze into the end zone, which he did on a 96-yard return.
“When they came back and made it 14-14, those were the things last year that we couldn’t overcome. We went in the tank when that happened. We called everybody up and said 14-14. What happens now has nothing to do with determining this game. What happens from here on out will.”
After his kickoff dash, Moffett intercepted Lina and Merchant slipped out of the backfield to his left. Ben Phillips rolled right, stopped, and hit Merchant on the move for a 47-yard score.
Madisonville later got as close as the 1, but settled for a Mauricio Aceves field goal to end the half with the Mustangs holding a 31-14 edge.