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story.lead_photo.caption Pleasant Grove senior wingback Ryan Pickelman celebrates his touchdown run in the Class 4A, Division II state semifinal game against Iowa Park on Friday at the Ford Center in the Star in Frisco, Texas. Pickelman's 38-yard TD run came with 32 seconds left in the first half to put the Hawks up 35-0.

To call Pleasant Grove's return trip to the football state championship improbable would be an understatement.

The Hawks returned just three starters on offense and four on defense from last season's 16-0 Class 4A, Division II championship team.

What's more difficult: Winning a state title or defending it? For PG, success is becoming the culture, a culture head coach Josh Gibson, his brother Justin Gibson—who came over from Frisco with Josh five years ago and serves as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator—and the Hawk coaching staff have presented.

The players have taken to success like, well, like Hawks to flight. And they continue flying high.

"With winning the state championship last year, we played an extra six weeks," Justin Gibson said. "We had a lot of guys playing this year that have stepped up who are new. Last year, due to injuries and illness, some of this year's players had to step up last year and contribute in the playoffs. One of the reasons why some teams remain successful is because of the extra practice that they get each year. Making it all the way to state is more than half a season. Junior varsity players can be brought up and they learn how to prepare and how to win from the older players."

There is a team sendoff at 12:30 p.m. today from the Hawk Stadium north parking lot (off Hawk Drive).

Clint Fuller is in his first year as defensive coordinator at PG after coming from Grapevine High School, where he also served as DC.

"The kids have been the key to our success; the kids at Pleasant Grove are resilient kids," Fuller said. "They're smart, they're tough, they want to be great and they to work every day, trying to get better. They put everything they have into the program. The coaches here have done a really good job, even before I got here, of building a really good foundation defensively.

"They had a great defense last year. I'm just trying to maintain what's been here and add my own twists into it. At the end of the day, it's the kids who make it go, and they've done a phenomenal job all year long of buying in."

Pleasant Grove (13-2) clashes with Cuero (14-1) at 11 a.m. Friday at AT&T Stadium for the 4A, Division II title.

"With the talent in our district, and Josh being the eternal optimist, we felt we had a chance," outside linebacker coach Steve Morris said. "We thought someone from our district was going to play for a state title, and so why not us?

"We thought our record might not be that good because of our schedule and how tough our opponents would be, especially with us breaking in so many new kids. But if could stay healthy and survive that schedule, we felt like we would have a shot. We just got better every week, and those young kids grew up in front of us."

Pleasant Grove has won nine games in a row. Prior to hammering Iowa Park, 49-14, last week in the semifinals after building a 35-0 halftime lead, the Hawks eliminated district opponents the previous two weeks. PG beat Pittsburg, 44-41—the closest game Pleasant Grove has played in the postseason—and Gilmer, 56-28.

Junior QB Ben Harmon tossed five TDs against Gilmer and threw three more last week, giving him 30 on the season and 57 in two years.

"I think a lot of our success in the passing game is because Josh and Justin Gibson have a spread background," quarterback and receivers coach Riley Fincher said. "I have been a part of a great coaching staff. The pass is something that we wanted to keep. Our quarterback, Ben Harmon, has a drive that is second to none. Ben puts in the extra time to perfect his craft.

"When we throw the ball, we try to create matchups that will be beneficial. Ben gives his receivers a chance to make plays. We have a lot of confidence in our pass game."

Pleasant Grove has played a brutal schedule and its only blemishes came in overtime against Gladewater and at Carthage.

"We played stiff competition, and we feel like we have seen it all," Justin Gibson said. "Our tough district and non-district schedule has helped prepare us for this moment. I feel like we are more battle-tested than Cuero. Our guys have already played in big games, so the moment won't be too big for them.

"Our team is a tight-knit group and enjoy being around each other. They play hard, and they just love playing the game."

The effort put forth by the Hawk players, in practice and during games, has made the defense emerge as another strong suit this season.

"When it comes to defense, sometimes people will try to make it more complicated than it needs to be," Fuller said. "It's about playing hard. It's about being physical. It's about pursuing the football. That's what we preach. Scheme's important, but I don't think it's as important as the kids playing physical, fast and pursuing the football.

"The kids are really smart kids, they pick up things very quickly and that allows them to play that much faster because when they're on the field they're not thinking they're just reacting to what they see and going full speed."

When Friday morning comes and Pleasant Grove takes the field at AT&T Stadium once again, the Hawks will be prepared.

"It's been an amazing run, and the kids have just been awesome," Morris said. "That's kind of the genius of Josh (Gibson). I don't think anybody outworks us, and he has those kids believing they could beat the Green Bay Packers. Once they buy into that, you've got a culture going, and it really shouldn't surprise us.

"We'll watch a film and see how good a team looks, and how talented their athletes are. Then we'll come back and realize, they've got to deal with us too."

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