Repeat weekend in title games
Article by Jeremy Peppas. Photos by Jaison Sterling.
It will be a busy two days of football at War Memorial Stadium with three state championship games featuring some very familiar faces.
All three games have teams looking to defend the state championship they won last season as is the case with North Little Rock when they take on conference opponent Bryant in a rematch game.
North Little Rock is 12-0 and ranked No. 1 in 7A by the staff of Hootens.com, they are also ranked No. 35 nationally in a poll by MaxPreps.com and with the win, the Charging Wildcats could climb much higher. Early season opponent Memphis Whitehaven is playing for the 6A state title this Thursday in Tennessee while Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington and Evangel Christian both made now ended playoff runs in Oklahoma and Louisiana respectively.
Bryant is the No. 2 in the Hootens.com poll and 9-2 overall.
The 7A title game is the last of the three and will kickoff at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.
In the first game they played not quite a month ago, Bryant jumped out to the early lead but North Little Rock rallied and held on for the 34-28 lead.
It should be a high-scoring affair as North Little Rock has been putting up 48 points a game in the playoffs and mostly on the strength of its running game with three backs — seniors Oscar Adaway and Tyler Day and junior Brandon Thomas — all 1,000 yards rushing for the season.
Thomas was the state title game’s Most Valuable Player last year while Adaway and Day will both play at the college of their choice next season.
Bryant also has a standout running back in Latavion Scott, who has rushed for 3,178 yards in his career along with college prospect Ren Hefley at quarterback, but it was sophomore Aaron Ledbetter who got the start last week in the semifinals.
This is Bryant’s first appearance in the state championship game, while North Little Rock is playing for the third consecutive time. Yet, Bryant with its annual Salt Bowl game against Benton, won’t be swayed by what’s expected to one of the largest title game crowds in state history.
So the Hornets are used to War Memorial and all the people.
With both teams scoring in bunches, the key to the game is special teams, a defensive score, anything that can flip the field and give that team the ball one more time.
In a game that could come down to the last team with the ball, every touch matters.
Hootens.com has the pick as North Little Rock to win and by one point.
More Pulaski County football goodness will be on display in the 5A title game as Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian face off for the title game at 7 p.m, on Friday and also face each other for the second time this season.
Both teams are 12-1 with PA’s loss to an out-of-state team, while Christian lost to the Bruins in conference play in Week 5.
PA is going for its fifth consecutive title, a feat no team in Arkansas has pulled off since the start of the playoffs in the early 1970s. Barton, led by future pro running back Hosea Knowlton and the state’s winningest coach in Frank McClellan, won four consecutive titles in the late 80s.
Last Friday, PA beat Harrison with a basketball like score of 75-54 while it was a hoops-like score in Conway County as Christian beat Morrilton, 61-42.
Basketball is a fitting comparison in more ways than one, as senior Justice Hill, Christian’s quarterback, has signed to play for Mike Anderson and the roundball Razorbacks next season.
This will be Hill’s last football game and has passed for nearly 3,000 yards in an injury-shortened season. He also missed PA’s win against the Warriors in the regular season. It was a game where Christian was only able to manage 90 yards of total offense in the loss.
Hill, who is also the son of former Arkansas football assistant coach Fitz, will almost assuredly have a huge game.
The problem is PA will have a huge game.
Coach Kevin Kelley’s philosophy of constant onside kicks and not punting, a plot point on Showtime’s Billions last season, gives the Bruins an edge. Sometimes that’s a double-edged sword as not punting cost PA a title when they faced a Tyler Wilson-led Greenwood a decade or so ago.
Regardless, the philosophy gives PA many more opportunities on offense and there, they capitalize. Quarterback Braden Bratcher has passed for more than 4,000 yards and 52 touchdowns as a junior. He has a bevy of receivers to throw to, including Arkansas signee Hudson Henry.
Hootens.com has PA favored and winning by 12 but it will be must-see television as this game, and the rest of the state championships, will be broadcast live to state-wide audience on AETN.
The 501 is guaranteed to win at least two state titles this weekend, there’s also a shot at a third trophy as Benton faces Greenwood in the 6A game at noon on Saturday.
This is also a rematch game, and the earlier matchup was on by Greenwood, 62-33, in Week 8.
Greenwood is No. 1 in the Hootens.com 6A poll and the Bulldogs are 11-1, while Benton is No. 2 and 10-2, with the other loss to 7A finalist Bryant in the Salt Bowl.
This is Greenwood’s fourth consecutive title game appearance and are the defending champs.
Benton’s Zak Wallace is a key cog at running back while Greenwood has senior quarterback Peyton Holt calling the shots and has passed for a little more than 3,500 yards this season.
The game will be the first step, in a two-step invasion of Saline County residents with Bryant facing North Little Rock in the nightcap.
Win or lose, expect the Benton crowd to stick around and Arkansas Activities Association executive director Lance Taylor said earlier this week he’s expecting record-approaching crowds for the games.
Hootens.com has Greenwood as the 10-point favorite.
Joe T. Robinson is the last Pulaski County team standing and the Senators are on a roll.
Robinson (11-2) made the difficult trip to Ozark last week and came away with a 38-16 win amongst a purple-clad, shotgun-toting sea.
Key to the game was Robinson’s ability to finish drives as the Senators scored three touchdowns on fourth down, with the last coming on the final play of the second quarter to give the team a 35-0 lead.
The win also gave Robinson the home field advantage when they face Dumas (12-1) this Friday.
Hootens.com has Robinson as the 16-point favorite in the semifinals with the winner facing either defending 4A champ Arkadelphia or the state’s No. 1 team in 4A, Shiloh Christian next Saturday in the state championship game.
The game at Robinson kicks off at 7 p.m. this Friday as all three west Little Rock schools are in action that night with Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian throwing down in the 5A title game.
This is the first time ever so many Pulaski County teams — 4 — and central Arkansas teams — a total of 7 — are still going this deep in the playoffs.