If there are any two teams in Arkansas who know each other better than Bryant and North Little Rock, I can’t name them. The 7A Central teams squared off on Saturday for the sixth time in three seasons and the third state championship game in as many years.
Bryant has made their case for being one of the greatest teams in state history with this senior class finishing their careers 37-2 overall, including back-to-back undefeated seasons and now a 3-peat. North Little Rock also has plenty to be proud of going 32-8 and making the championship game each year.
During their first match-up in week 9, North Little Rock showed they could compete with the Hornets leading 14-9 at one point in the second half. Bryant taking an eventual 24-14 lead into the break was the beginning of an onslaught that would come in the form of almost 1,000 total yards for Austin Ledbetter and the Bryant offense leading to a 58-21 victory.
Ledbetter’s favorite target Hayden Schrader was held to just 2 catches for 27 yards, so it was the running game led by game MVP Tanner Anderson (18 car, 146 yds, 2 TDs) and Jamarien Bracy (14 car, 94 yds, 2 TDs) that stepped up and fueled this Hornet offense.
“Tanner and Jamarien did a super job,” Bryant head coach Buck James said. “They had a will not to get tackled and they held on to the football. Our offensive line were workhorses, they did yeoman’s work all year long. I think our balance is the reason I am talking to you guys right now because we can run the football as well as throw the football.”
Bryant looked to be in business pretty quickly intercepting Wildcat quarterback Kareame Cotton’s pass 1:20 in and taking over at the NLR 39. The Hornets drove all the way to the Wildcat 6, but were stopped on 4th down. The Wildcats spent the remainder of the first quarter and into the second with possession that ended in a missed 38-yard field goal try from Liam Selhorst.
Bryant responded with an 8 play, 85-yard drive capped when Jamarien Bracy took the handoff left and got into the end zone for the game’s first score with 7:21 remaining in the first half.
After forcing a punt, Bryant called on Anderson and he answered. He had a 15-yard gain on 3rd & 5, then a few plays later finished it with a 7-yard touchdown. With 3:47 remaining in the half, Bryant led 14-0.
Malachi Graham intercepted Cotton on the ensuing drive and returned it 52 yards to the NLR 9. Bracy scored his second touchdown from 10 yards to give Bryant a commanding lead 21-0 in the final minutes of the first half.
There was not much time remaining in the half, but Fred O’Donald still was able to provide a spark for the Wildcats rushing 30+ yards on two plays and scoring with :08 remaining to put NLR on the board 20-7.
Bryant went back to the ground game at the beginning of the third quarter and it was looking promising with runs from Anderson of 17 & 16 yards, but the Wildcat defense stood tall getting the stop on 4th & 1 giving NLR the ball near midfield.
It was crucial for North Little Rock to get some points on their next possession and that they did. O’Donald continued his success from the end of the first half resulting in a 15-yard score to make the deficit 20-14 Bryant.
NLR continued their success on the ground and were threatening in the red zone, but the drive was stopped on 3rd&5 when Bryant linebacker Hart Penfield batted down Cotton’s pass. NLR was forced to settle for a Selhorst 22-yard field goal cutting the lead to 20-17 with 9:31 left.
The Wildcat run defense seemed to be fatigued on their next series and Anderson saw it, running right off of tackle Brooks Edmonson’s hip and went 25 yards untouched extending the Hornet lead 27-17.
Randall Abrams punched back for the Wildcats returning the kickoff to the NLR 35, but the Bryant defense hardly gave an inch sacking Cotton on back-to-back plays forcing a Wildcat 4th&22 with 4:22 remaining.
Jaiquori Stewart came down with a great 39-yard reception from Cotton getting all the way to the Hornet 10. Facing a 4th down, Bryant was able to hold again giving them the ball back with less than 4 minutes and a 10-point lead.
Ledbetter was able to march his troops down the field and with a minute left got in victory formation securing the 3-peat.
“I will go on record and say that Austin Ledbetter is the greatest quarterback in the state of Arkansas history,” James mentioned. “His stats put him up there, the guy is nothing but a winner. He has done a heck of a job and somebody has missed out on one heck of a quarterback.”
North Little Rock finishes their season 12-2 and despite a third straight runner-up finish, head coach JR Eldridge sees a lot of positives from this game and season:
“I’m very thankful we had a season with so many unknowns,” Eldridge said. “Even though we fell short, we have a sense of accomplishment that we were able to keep coming back to work this season.
Game photos can be viewed here https://www.sterlingimageworksgallery.com/p161267433
Article published by Kyle Sutherland, k_sutherlandHTP on Twitter