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Arkansas high school football notebook (11/26/2023)

News and notes from around Week 13 of Arkansas prep football

BRYANT — For the first time since 2018, the Class 7A champion will not be the Bryant Hornets and for the first time since 2016, the 7A champion will come from the 7A West. 

That’s because the Bentonville Tigers (9-3), who lost 36-7 a year ago to Bryant in the 7A state championship game, are marching back to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock after a 52-35 victory over Bryant (10-2) at Hornet Stadium Friday night.

Bentonville will meet 7A-West rival Fayetteville, a 24-21 winner over Conway in the other semifinal. Fayetteville (12-0) beat Bentonville 42-21 on Oct. 13. The 7A-West has not won a state title since 2016 when Fayetteville beat North Little Rock 53-19. Two 7A-West teams have not meet for the state title since 2015 when Fayetteville beat Springdale Har-Ber 28-7.

The elation was on the faces of the Tigers, who remembered last year’s defeat and got revenge by eliminating Bryant on their home field. After serenading head coach Jody Grant with “Happy Birthday,” Grant told his team that the victory was the best birthday present they could give him. He also urged his team to give him one more great effort as the Tigers look for their first state title since 2014 when they defeated Fayetteville 24-21. That title marked the last one for former coach Barry Lunney Sr., who months later announced his retirement.

Grant said he remembered how Bryant got after his team a year ago, dominating them in first downs (23-12), total yardage (391-216), rushing yardage (194-83) and holding them to 2-of-15 on third downs. He said his team used last year’s loss at motivation all year and put the lessons to work.

Bryant head coach Quad Sanders said he didn’t notice much difference between Bentonville’s team last year and this year. He said this year’s team seemed to come in determined not to have Bryant end its season again.

The Tigers took a 21-14, first-quarter lead with Carter Nye (15-of-27 passing for 238 yards and 4 touchdowns) throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Luke Coon and Jason Gilmore rushing for two touchdowns. Gilmore’s second touchdown came after Bryant punter Drake Fowler was dropped for a 16-yard loss when a bad snap force Fowler to try and run.

Bryant did even the score at 21-21 in the second quarter on a 26-yard touchdown run by Myron Thrash, but the Tigers broke the game open in the third quarter on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Nye to Coon (6 catches for 104 yards and 3 touchdowns) and a 49-yard pass from Nye to C.J. Brown (5 catches for 107 yards and 1 touchdown). After Bryant’s Simeon Mitchell fumbled the following kickoff, Ryan Fernstrom nailed a 25-yard field goal to make it 38-21, putting the Hornets in a rare position of having to play catch up in the second half.

“We talked to them at halftime, and we had to have a big-time quarter and we had to take advantage of the first few possessions,” said Grant. “Our kids played their guts out and that’s what we asked them to.”

Bryant did get it back to 38-28 on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Walker to Carson Trickey, but a 21-yard pass from Nye to Coon with 49 seconds left in the third quarter keep the game out of reach for Bryant at 45-28. Bryant appeared to give up a safety when Mitchell fielded the following kickoff and was running back toward his goal line when he appeared to be tackled on the goal line which would have resulted in a safety. However, the officials spotted the ball at the 1-yard line. Following a Bryant punt, Bentonville’s Chris Ficklin (19 carries for 74 yards), carried the ball seven consecutive times with the last one being a 3-yard touchdown run with 7:10 left to put the game on ice at 52-28.

“Our young sophomore back did a great job,” said Grant.

While Bentonville marches on, Bryant faces the reality that it will not be making a trip to War Memorial Stadium for the first time since 2017, ending a string of five consecutive state championships.

After Buck James, who coached Bryant for the past seven years, left for Conway on May 30, Quad Sanders, who had been Bryant’s defensive coordinator before leaving to take the Jonesboro head coaching position, was brought back to replace James. Sanders took responsibility for the fact that the Hornets will be playing for a sixth-consecutive state championship.

“We’ve got a chance to see what it takes,” said Sanders “We graduated 44 seniors a year ago and most of them started or were backups. We were in and out of the year with a lot of young guys. These guys now know what it takes and know what it feels like as do the coaches.

“As a coach, I know what it feels like, being in that situation. We’ll go back to the drawing board and learn from it.”

-- Jeff Halpern

Elkins offense rolls, defense locks down against CAC

Something had to give in the Class 4A quarterfinal between Central Arkansas Christian and Elkins, a matchup of high-scoring offenses.

The Elks conducted business as they have all season, scoring 50-plus points for the tenth time in 13 tries, but the defense frustrated the Mustangs all night on their home turf. Additionally, Elkins reeled off 35 unanswered points after leading by just two following one quarter in the 53-15 rout.

The 15 points allowed was by far CAC's lowest point total of the season, as they previously put up no less than 40. Elks head coach Zach Watson pointed out it was nothing new for his unit that has allowed under 10 points per contest in 2023.  

"Our defense has shown up all year," Watson said. "That is overlooked every week because of the points being scored, but (defensive coordinator) Coach (Alex) Burris has done a tremendous job on that side of the ball. Those guys run around like their hair is on fire all the time."

Two of the most crucial stops came in the second quarter as the Elks were beginning to pull away. They held the Mustangs on back-to-back fourth down tries and even overcame a turnover in that sequence. Juniors Ja'Quae Walden (six tackles, one for loss, 3 pass breakups) and Owen Baublits (5 tackles, two for loss) finished as the leading tacklers.

The most important part of the defensive stands for Elkins (13-0) was that the dynamic offense turned them into points and on the evening racked up over 600 total yards. While senior quarterback Slade "Dizzy" Dean (15-of-25, 223 yards, 2 touchdowns) enjoyed another fine outing, classmate Da'Shawn Chairs stole the show with five rushing touchdowns. Chairs compiled 250 yards on just 24 carries for an incredible average of 10.4 yards per touch.

"There was Reggie Jackson for the Yankees that was Mr. October in baseball, Da'Shawn Chairs is Mr. November in football," Watson said. "In the last four games now he has over 20 touchdowns. He shows up when the lights are the brightest.

"But I think Da'Shawn will be the first to tell you those five guys up front and Stone Dean, his H-Back, open up the holes for him to get that yardage."

Watson was correct on that assumption.

"The game plan we had worked amazing with the blocks the line had up front and also with the receivers downfield" Chairs said. "Football games are won Monday through Thursday and we just come out (with that mentality) every day in practice."

The Elks are in the semifinal round for the first time since 1993 and look to continue building on that when they host defending 4A runner-up Harding Academy on Friday with a trip to War Memorial Stadium on the line. 

Despite the most frustrating outing of the season for CAC (9-3), first-year head coach Ryan Howard praised his players for buying into the new culture and, as a result, earned a conference title as well as finished the year as one of the final eight teams standing in 4A.

"Before the season there was not a person in the state who thought we would have done what we did," Howard said. "Our guys believed from the first day I arrived that if we did what we were supposed to do that we would give ourselves a chance to win. The constant fight and resiliency these guys showed each week was fun to coach and we laid a foundation for what is to come."

-- Kyle Sutherland