Celina wins fourth state 7-on-7 title

COLLEGE STATION — Beating the heat as much as their opponents, Celina’s 7-on-7 football team earned more hardware for their overflowing trophy case on Friday.

Senior receiver Ben Thiel caught three touchdown passes from sophomore Nathan Elliott, and Cash Conder caught two more, leading the Bobcats to the Texas Division II 7-on-7 championship with a 34-28 win over Graham at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field.

The Bobcats finished 8-0 in the tournament, playing in 100-degree temperatures with high humidity and a relentless sun.

“We had several kids cramping up, and I didn’t know how long they’d last, but they sucked it up,” newly-promoted head coach Bill Elliott said. “They had to play five games out here.”

Celina’s defense rose to the occasion as well, with Brendan Batton and Nick Grant making an interception apiece.

The other Texomaland school in the tournament, defending Division II state champion Melissa, lost to McGregor in the first round of the championship bracket, 27-26.

The Bobcats, who have won eight state championships in 11-man ball, annexed their fourth state 7-on-7 championship, following titles in 2000, 2007 and 2009. The 2000 championship was an overall title against schools of all sizes before the divisional split.

The Bobcats did it the way they’ve always done it, with Nathan Elliott lining up under center — unheard-of in 7-on-7 — and running short plays to maintain ball control, with a strike to the jugular at just the right times.

“We wanted to go under the radar,” Thiel said. “We didn’t want anybody to expect us to be good. We had to play over our heads, and we did. Our defense stepped up when we needed it and our offense executed.”

Ironically, both Celina and Graham qualified for state in the same tournament at Arlington Bowie in May. The teams elected not to play a championship game then.

In Friday’s state final, Graham took the lead on its first possession, but Nathan Elliott’s first TD pass to Thiel got the Bobcats on the scoreboard. Then Batton’s interception set up another Thiel scoring catch for a 13-7 lead.

The Steers nosed in front again before the left-handed Elliott hit Thiel on a long pass and then converted a 2-point conversion for a 21-14 halftime lead. The Bobcats never trailed again.

Conder got into the scoring act in the second half, atoning for a drop in the end zone with his first scoring catch and adding a second one with about four minutes left which virtually sealed the win.

Earlier Saturday, the Bobcats squeaked out wins over Gatesville (42-36) and West Orange-Stark (33-26) at Penberthy Intramural Fields before the action switched over to Texas A&M’s football practice fields for the quarterfinals. The Bobcats beat Rockdale, 38-28, to advance to the championship semifinal against Navasota, another perennial 7-on-7 power.

The Bobcats raced out to a 26-6 halftime lead with scoring catches by Thiel, Damian Umana (twice) and DeShawn Davis.

Navasota came storming back in the second half to make the game close, drawing to within 32-25 on an interception return for a score, before another touchdown pass from Nathan Elliott to Thiel gave Celina a decisive cushion.

“Ben is an excellent player, with so much talent and skill,” coach Elliott said. “He spends a lot of time with Nathan, and they have great timing. He did great today.”