Are you ready for some Black Friday football?
By Jeremy Peppas
Photos by Jaison Sterling
Black Friday football is the best football Friday night in Arkansas.
In 7A, 6A and 5A it is the semifinals, while in the other classifications it is the quarterfinals.
In basketball terms that makes them the Final 4s and Elite 8s and the state’s very best teams are on display.
The state’s best team is North Little Rock and the Charging Wildcats host Bentonville West with a trip to next Saturday’s state championship game on the line.
As the defending state champs North Little Rock is 11-0, again, and ranked No. 1 in Class 7A by the staff at Hootens.com.
A win would put the Cats in the championship game for the third consecutive year as North Little Rock is favored to win by 15 by Hootens.com.
West, the second high school in Bentonville, is just in its third season of playing football and has the very talented Jadon Jackson at wide receiver. Jackson has committed to Ole Miss and is arguably the state’s top receiving prospect.
North Little Rock has had issues with talented receivers all season, and gave up more than 450 yards passing last week to For Smith Southside in the quarterfinals, so don’t be surprised if Jackson has a big game for West.
The problem for West is that North Little Rock’s strong running game and stopping the run has been an issue all season.
And in North Little Rock it isn’t just one talented running back, it is three. Seniors Oscar Adaway, Tyler Day and junior Brandon Thomas have all rushed for at least 1,000 yards this season. Adaway, a top college prospect, brings speed and receiving skills while Day, the youngest brother in Day football family tree, has raw power and the biggest little brother to Juan and Alex, who both play at Arkansas Monticello. Thomas was the state championship game’s most valuable player last season a sophomore and has both speed and power.
So key, will be North Little Rock and a grind out running attack that will eat up clock and limit the time West has on the field for offense.
In the other semifinal is Bryant and Fort Smith Northside. Bryant beat Northside in 7A-Central conference play in a game that was ended early because of lightning.
Bryant was up 16-7 in the second quarter when the game was stopped.
If Bryant was to win, it would be the Saline County school’s first state championship game appearance. Northside, once a powerhouse in the state’s largest classification, hasn’t played for a title this century, with its last trip to War Memorial in 1999.
Sylvan Hills has been on a straight roll in the postseason. In the school’s first season in 6A, the Bears are headed to defending state champ Greenwood for a semifinals appearance.
Sylvan Hills (4-7) entered the playoffs as a no. 6 seed from the East but beat Russellville in overtime to get a conference rematch against Marion in the quarters, which the Bears, obviously, won. Key were big plays from Cole Bland and Amaad Yancy. Bland provided the game winning touchdown with a 96 yard run in the fourth quarter, while Yancy returned a kickoff 75 yards for another touchdown. In between was reliable senior kicker Tito Mendoza, who really should play in college somewhere, with a field goal and was a perfect 2 of 2 on extra points. Mendoza accounted for five points in the three-point win.
Hootens.com has the fun ending for Sylvan Hills though as they Greenwood favored to win by 21.
In Class 5A, both Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian are still going.
Pulaski Academy is hosting an unbeaten Harrison, while Christian travels to a very hot Morrilton squad.
Let’s get to that last game first.
It will be a quarterback palooza in Conway County with Justice Hill calling the signals at Christian and Jacolby Criswell at the helm for the Devil Dogs.
Hill has already signed to play basketball at the University of Arkansas next season and is the son of Fitz, the former Arkansas football coach, while Criswell, a junior, is a top prospect and is being heavily recruited by Arkansas, among many others.
Both have dazzled despite both having missing portions of the season due to injury.
Hill has passed for nearly 2,500 yards this season and that’s with missing two games because of a bum hamstring, while Criswell has passed for nearly 900 yards in three games as he missed Morrilton’s first nine games after tearing up a knee in a preseason scrimmage.
It should be a barnburner.
But, Harrison at Pulaski Academy will be better.
The teams combine for 966 yards of total offense a game with the Bruins coming in at 49 points a game, while the Goblins are good for 44 points a game. Both teams are strong on the ground.
If you go, get used to hearing Harrison’s Gabe Huskey getting called by the public address announcer. The junior running back has rushed for nearly 2,000 yards this season and is also the team’s top receiver.
Huskey didn’t play last season when the two teams met in the quarterfinals.
For PA, Braden Bratcher has passed for 4,100 yards and 47 touchdowns with Arkansas commit Hudson Henry, the youngest brother in the Henry football family tree, has 1,114 receiving yards on 80 catches.
Joe T. Robinson is the last Pulaski County school left standing in Class 4A and have a trip to Ozark in the quarterfinals.
Ozark, the winner of the 4A-4, is 9-2 and beat Lonoke last week after a first round bye.
The Hillbillies have senior quarterback and three-year starter Dawson Dietz running the show and Dietz has passed for nearly 2,000 yards and rushed for over 500 this season. His top target is junior tight end Bryant Burns, who at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, has more than 600 yards receiving and is averaging nearly 25 yards a catch. Burns, a top college prospect, also anchors an aggressive Ozark defense that held Lonoke to 92 yards of total offense and forced five Jackrabbit turnovers last week.
The winner will be at home for the semifinals and will face the survivor of Dumas and Rivercrest.