Destination War Memorial Amongst Difficult Times

“Thankful” is the word North Little Rock head Coach JR Eldridge told me how he felt seconds after his Wildcats had a thrilling 49-42 win against Cabot last week to advance to the school’s fifth-straight state title to play Bryant for the third year in a row. Like many around the state, both teams were affected by COVID-19 at least for one game sitting out week 6.

Four months ago seems like yesterday when we were less than a month from the start of week 0 kicking off the 2020 high school football season. We were actually only 3 weeks considering most teams still planned on playing their preseason scrimmages on August 24th, which many were cancelled.

Despite some roadblocks, we have made it to the final destination for the 6&7A state championships starting at 12:10 PM Saturday at War Memorial Stadium. Coach Eldridge and Bryant head coach Buck James met with the media Thursday and Eldridge reiterated how grateful he is to be at this point.

“First of all I’m thankful we have gotten to play and that we’re healthy. I’m so excited to be here and look forward to not only this finished preparation, but also the game on Saturday.”

Eldridge, who spent 10 years as an assistant at Ouachita Baptist, was previously head coach at Arkadelphia from 2011-19 winning two state championships going back-to-back in 2017 & ’18. He mentioned winning championships at the 4A level and being able to play for the the title in the state’s largest classification is a great image for the school.

“I do think it creates more buy in,” Eldridge said. “Playing and working for Coach Knight at Ouachita and seeing what he created then going to Arkadelphia, I have seen the growth of programs and that is what we are trying to do here. North Little Rock has been to the last 5 state championships, so the expectation has been set.” Out of those 5 opportunities the Wildcats have only won it all once in 2017 defeating Bentonville 44-37.

Excluding a 58-21 loss to Bryant in week 9, North Little Rock has done about all you could ask this year. Senior Landers Award finalists Kareame Cotton and Fred O’Donald have led a lethal rushing attack totaling 2800 yards and 42 touchdowns. Cotton was brilliant against Cabot earning 446 yards and accounting for 6 touchdowns.

“Just being able to see Kareame grow as a leader, the more he has worked he just continues to be able to take over and have command of the offense,” Eldridge said.

You look over on the other side at Bryant and you see very few, if any flaws. The Hornets are riding a 29-game winning streak. They have not lost since falling to the Wildcats 34-28 in October of 2018.

At quarterback is Arkansas Razorback baseball signee and one of the state’s most polished players Austin Ledbetter. Ledbetter is the state’s second-leading passer with 2,959 yards and has 41 touchdowns to 5 interceptions. His favorite target, Hayden Schrader, is 7th nationally in receiving yards with 1,417 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Bryant and North Little Rock both have three players with over 500 yards rushing, massive offensive lines, and in most weeks play fundamentally sound defense.

We can point out as many stats as we want but don’t try to sell stats, scores, or predictions to Coach James:

“Scores don’t mean anything to me,” James said in reference to Bryant winning this year’s regular season contest 58-21. “I think Coach Eldridge would agree with me, either one of us would take a one point victory if we win. However many points we score is irrelevant to me.”

With Ledbetter and Schraeder being possibly the best QB/WR duo in the state, I asked him how much pressure it takes off of his staff knowing they have not 1, or 2, but 3 running backs to utilize:

“To win championships you have to run the football and you have to stop the run,” James stated. “Our running game is a big part of what we are doing on offense. Those guys have done a great job of doing what we have asked them.”

In the matchup earlier this season, North Little Rock led Bryant 14-9 at one point late in the first half, but the Hornets got to work and gashed the Wildcats for 992 total yards. It is tough to imagine anyone in the state keeping Bryant from 3-peating, but if it does happen it is only fitting that North Little Rock is the one to do it.

Article Published by Kyle Sutherland, k_sutherlandHTP on Twitter