Inspired by coach: Dragons prepare for playoffs after loss to Arlington

Collierville senior running back Cole Johnson runs into a wall of Arlington defenders Friday night on the road. The game marked the end of the regular season and ushers in the playoffs, where Collierville will travel to Whitehaven and Arlington will host White Station this Friday night. Photo by Roger Cotton.
Collierville senior running back Cole Johnson runs into a wall of Arlington defenders Friday night on the road. The game marked the end of the regular season and ushers in the playoffs, where Collierville will travel to Whitehaven and Arlington will host White Station this Friday night. Photo by Roger Cotton.

The Dragons’ 40-21 loss to Arlington on Friday was the last game that Mike O’Neill, Collierville’s head football coach of the past seven years, will coach this season. Diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the throat, he went to Houston Monday with his wife for treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The muddy victory gave Arlington (7-3, 3-1) second place in Region 7-6A and home field advantage in the playoffs that begin this Friday. The Tigers host White Station (3-7) at 7 p.m. The Spartans, who lost to Arlington 35-31 on Sept. 15, were Region 8-6A’s third place team. Collierville (6-4, 2-2) will play at Region 8-6A’s second-place team Whitehaven (8-2) at 7 p.m. Friday. Tommy Miller will be interim head coach for Collierville as the Dragons enter the playoffs.

With both teams wearing helmet decals with O’Neill’s name and a picture of a dragon, Collierville and Arlington players gathered around O’Neill after the game for prayer. Collierville seniors gave him a helmet in an acrylic case with their names on it. Players and fans had fundraiser t-shirts that read “#Dragons Don’t Back Down.”

Matt Connors, the Dragons’ senior quarterback, said, “He taught us to be strong and tough and come out fighting and give everything you’ve got, not just in football but in life.”

O’Neill said he was moved by the outpouring of prayers and gifts coming from both sidelines.

“I felt Arlington people showed a lot of class,” he said. “They were very nice, very prayerful. It was just an amazing night.”

Arlington quarterback Tate Kolwyck said, “It’s a sad thing, but we are praying for him and we hope he gets better. He is an influence in our lives now.”

After the game, O’Neill called Kolwyck the best distraction in his circumstances. “I had to worry about him and number nine (Kenneth Walker III) all week. That was a big distraction from cancer for a week.”

A senior who has started since he was a freshman and has committed to play baseball at Vanderbilt, Kolwyck completed 12 of 17 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.

With 7:15 left in the third quarter, Kolwyck completed a 10-yard pass to Caleb Nelson that pushed Kolwyck past 10,000 career passing yards. He is the third quarterback in state history to achieve this.

Through 10 games, Kolwyck has thrown for 2,644 yards and 33 touchdowns, completing 152 of 255 passes.

“I really wasn’t thinking about it. I was trying to get the win,” Kolwyck said. “Looking back on it now I am really proud. I think my biggest success is just listening. I am taking coaching from Coach Sykes, Coach (Chris) Wiley, former Arlington head coach, Coach Mac (Arlington assistant Josh McElroy). All the coaches have influenced me.”

Said Arlington Head Coach Adam Sykes said, “Right now he is not looking at stats. He is trying to win ball games and he wants to go as far as he can in the playoffs.”

Playing conditions forced both teams into more of a running game.

Scoring two touchdowns, Walker rushed for 211 yards and had 35 yards receiving and a touchdown. Collierville running back Cole Johnson, who scored all three touchdowns, gained 140 yards on 33 carries for the Dragons’ team high. Johnson also caught a touchdown pass from Connors, who completed 7 of 22 passes for 77 yards. Connors rushed for 76 yards.

Johnson has rushed for a team-high 889 yards this season and scored 10 touchdowns.

Devin Chandler had a 64-yard touchdown reception from Kolwyck, and Hunter Goodman had three receptions for 34 yards, including a touchdown from Kolwyck.

The Tigers’ defense had a pick six. Defensive back Glyndon Carroll intercepted a Connors’ pass for a 36-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left in the first half to give the Tigers a 27-14 halftime lead.

“That changed the game around,” said Walker.

Walker did his job on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage. Taking a pitch from Kolwyck, Walker ran 61 yards for a touchdown and it was 7-0 after Conner Ford kicked the PAT 19 seconds into the game.

After a punt by Goodman, the Dragons were on the Arlington 30-yard line. Three straight runs by Johnson and a 9-yard pass from Connors to Marcus Bersoza set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Johnson. Caleb Myers tied the game at 7 with his PAT with 2:50 left in the first quarter.

Another 60-plus yard play led to Arlington’s second touchdown. Kolwyck threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Chandler with 1:08 left in the first quarter for a 14-7 lead.

A 21-yard run by Kolwyck after a pass to Goodman and two five-yard runs by Walker got the Tigers to the Dragons’ 31-yard line. Kolwyck ran to the 25 and then threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Goodman for a 21-7 lead with 8:19 left in the second quarter.

The Dragons began a scoring drive when Gavin Rawie recovered a Kolwyck fumble at the Arlington 47-yard line. Connors then threw a 38-yard pass to Johnson, who went to the 9. Johnson ran five yards to the 4, then to the 2 and scored from there, and the Dragons were within 21-14 with 3:13 left.

Trailing 27-14, the Dragons scored on their first possession of the third quarter. Johnson had seven rushes in the drive before scoring an 11-yard touchdown with 8:53 left. Connors had an 11-yard pass to Kayvon Anderson in the drive.

Collierville was on the Arlington 15-yard line when defensive back Cezanne Bush intercepted a pass. Runs by Walker and a pass to Goodman got the Tigers to their 43-yard line. Walker then ran 57 yards for a touchdown and a 33-21 lead.

The Dragons then got to the Tigers’ 21-yard line before failing to convert on fourth and nine with 4:48 left.

A 20-yard touchdown pass from Kolwyck to Walker got the Tigers’ final touchdown. Ford made it 40-21 with 2:50 left. This season Walker has gained 1,051 yards on 152 carries and scored 14 touchdowns.

“We felt like we finally won it,” said Kolwyck. “We just put the dagger in.”

Nelson has 795 yards receiving on 37 receptions and seven touchdowns this season; Chandler, 674 yards on 37 receptions and 12 touchdowns; Goodman, 591 yards on 32 catches and eight touchdowns. Walker has six touchdown catches and 390 yards on 23 catches.

Arlington finished with 425 yards total offense, 181 passing, 284 rushing. Collierville had 303 yards offense with 226 rushing, 77 passing.

The Tigers converted 5 of 10 third downs; Collierville, 5 of 13.

Carson Rees and Virgil Pryor led the Dragons with six tackles each while Anderson and Wyatt Raines had five each. Cade Cupp had four tackles.

For the season, Raines has 90 tackles; Cupp, 59; C.J. Barnes, 49; Rawie, 44; Virgil Pryor, 43; and Daltrion Holpe, 42.

The Tigers’ Logan Feathers (shoulder) and Josh Wolfe (arm) were injured against Collierville.

Leading the Tigers’ defense were Mitchell Faulkner with a game-high 10 tackles. Calvin Robertson had seven; Ethan Asher and Bush, six each; and Feathers, five.

Tiger tackle leaders this year have been Bush with 68 tackles; Faulkner, 45; Alex Salas, 40.5; Feathers, 38.5; Tanner Magowan, 37; Nelson, 24; Jorge Avalos, 22; Robertson, 22; and Asher, 20.

Bersoza has 793 yards passing this season on 59 receptions and nine touchdowns. Stonework has seven touchdowns and 597 yards on 49 receptions. Anderson has caught four touchdown passes and has 356 yards on 20 catches. Johnson has three TDs, 218 yards receiving and 16 catches.

Said Sykes of his team, “These seniors have led this team all year through good times and bad times. They will continue to do it (in the playoffs).”

BILL SORRELL is a freelance writer for The Bartlett Express and other Journal West 10 Media LLC publications. Contact him at