The Southwest Junior College Football Conference regional playoffs begin Saturday with the Cardinals in a familiar position.
For a fifth straight year, the ninth-ranked Cardinals are the No. 1 seed in the postseason, which will determine the conference's host team in the C.H.A.M.P.S. Heart of Texas Bowl in Copperas Cove next month.
The Cardinals (7-2) take on fourth-seeded Navarro (6-3) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Bruce Field. The Cardinals scored a 25-19 win against the Bulldogs in Corsicana in Week 2.
The Cardinals secured a fourth straight SWJCFC regular season conference championship Saturday with a 31-21 win against Cisco at Bruce Field. The Cardinals also won the title in 2013, but the title was vacated by NJCAA sanctions.
In addition to the Cardinals' win against Cisco, NEO went on the road and took care of Blinn in 35-26 fashion to forge a three-way tie atop the final SWJCFC standings – all at 5-2. With the conference's point-differential point tiebreaker applied, the Cardinals emerged the No. 1 seed.
The Cardinals will carry a 7-2 mark into Saturday's win against Cisco. Navarro is 6-3, including a 25-19 loss to the Cardinals in Week 2.
In the other semifinal Saturday, third-seeded Blinn (6-2) and second-seeded NEO (7-2) will meet for a second straight week, this time in Miami, Okla. Kickoff at Robertson Field is 2 p.m.
Saturday's winners will meet at the site of the highest remaining seed on Saturday, Nov. 11.
CARDINALS 31, CISCO 21
The Cardinals scored the first touchdown with 4:49 left in the first quarter. Prince Robinson stepped in front of a Jake Franklin pass, and went 35-yards to paydirt for the 7-0 lead.
The Wranglers returned the favor with 3:03 remaining as Antonio Thomas had a 47-yard interception return. Juan Nunez tied the game at 7 with the PAT.
The first offensive TD came with 2:10 remaining in the opening quarter as TVCC running back Aphonso Thomas went 27-yards for the 14-7 lead.
Cardinal linebacker Trey Baldwin had an interception on Cisco's 9-yard line to set up the third touchdown.
"The defense was lights out in the first half. It was a shame that we didn't get 14 points off of two turnovers that the defense got us inside the 10-yard line," Coach Brad Smiley said. "That was very disappointing, and we have to iron out a few of the things that are keeping us from being the explosive team we are supposed to be. I know we scored 31 points, but we feel like we should be executing at a higher level than we are right now."
Cisco then cut into the Cardinals lead following a blocked punt deep in TVCC territory. Andre Johnson scored from three-yards out for the 21-14 deficit.
Trinity Valley wrapped up the first half scoring with a 34-yard field goal by Sevier with 8:30 remaining.
In the second half, Cisco had a 35-yard reception from Franklin to Raghib Ismail, Jr. to cut the deficit to 24-21 in the third quarter.
The final score came with 13:48 remaining in the game on a 14-yard reception from Eppler to Justice.
Justice finished with 11 receptions for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
Mullins had four receptions for 34 yards. He led the team in rushing with six carries for 61 yards.
"The offense hit some big plays, but we weren't as sharp as we needed to be," Smiley said. "We didn't execute as we should of, but some guys stepped up and made some plays. Torin Justice and Tony Mullins stepped up big. I thought the line played pretty well. We were thinned out. Hopefully we start getting some of the guys back. I am really proud of the guys as they kept fighting through it and finding ways."
Eppler was 26 of 45 for 367 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
(Game information provided by Athens Daily Review)