For more photos of this event by Rick Nation, go here
BENTONVILLE — Six plays in, the Bryant Hornets looked golden. The offensive line was moving the Bentonville Tigers off the ball and junior running back LaTavion Scott was picking up first downs. They drove from their own 28 to the Bentonville 29.
But, at the end of the 3-yard run on first down that got them to the 29, a Bentonville player hit one of Bryant’s offensive lineman with an unnecessary shot and, out of instinct or frustration, a shove came back.
The second one is so often the one that gets caught.
It would be the Hornets last first down for a while. In fact, before Bryant could muster another first down, the Tigers piled up a 24-0 lead.
Then when the Hornets finally ground out that second first down, a fumble turned the ball back to Bentonville.
Bryant just never recovered as the Tigers, champions of the 7A-West Conference and perennial championship contenders (and winners), had captured their ninth consecutive victory while ending a stellar season for the Hornets, 44-14.
Bentonville will advance to play North Little Rock in the 7A championship game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Saturday, Dec. 2, at noon.
The Hornets’ season concludes with a 10-2 record, just the third season in the history of the program with double-digit victories; their second season in a row to reach the State semifinals; and the final high school game for a group of seniors that were a part of a school-record number of victories in three seasons, 28.
Unfortunately, they just couldn’t knock down that door that would’ve put them in the championship game for the first time ever.
Late in the week, the Hornet defense was gashed when junior middle linebacker Jakob Neel, the heart of the defense and the leading tackler for the season, suffered a season-ending back injury. Ordinarily, it would just be a next-man-up situation but there proved to be so little time to adjust — well, they just couldn’t slow down the Bentonville offense which wound up accounting for 494 yards in the game.
Bryant found itself trailing 30-0 before they could get into the end zone on a 9-yard pass from Ren Hefley to Brandon Murray with 3:04 left in the first half. And, despite so little time remaining, Bentonville drove for an answering score to make it 37-7 at the half.
The Hornets played better in the second half, which is standard operating procedure this season but they hadn’t faced a 30-point deficit at halftime. While the defense stopped the Tigers’ first three possessions of the second half, the Hornets made bids to whittle on the lead.
Bentonville picked up a first down on its initial drive of the third quarter and, despite being punted back to their own 16, the Hornets moved the ball to the Bentonville 5.
Needing to score on just about every possession of the second half, the Hornets stalled there, however. Bentonville took over on downs with 4:32 left in the third quarter.
The Tigers went three-and-out for the first time in the game and the Hornets took advantage of a short punt to get on the board. Again, it was a Hefley-to-Murray combination, this time covering 36 yards.
Grayson Scoles kicked it to 37-14.
The Hornets retained the momentum when, on the second play of the fourth quarter, Allen Coleman intercepted a Bentonville pass in the end zone to stop a Tiger threat.
A pair of pass completions to Ja’Kalon Pittman and Randy Thomas got Bryant to the 47 when Hefley was sacked. Three plays later, the Hornets turned it over on downs at the 49.
Taking advantage, the Tigers found their way into the end zone for their only score of the second half. Quarterback Nathan Lyons covered the final 27 yards with a pass to tight end Tyler Johnson, icing the victory with 5:27 left to play.
The Hornets drove to the Bentonville 37 where the drive stalled and Bryant’s last chance — they did have one more possession in the final minute of the game — was over.
Hefley wound up passing for 300 yards and the two touchdowns going 27 of 45 but was under pressure much of the night against a three-man front and a late-blitzing linebacker from a variety of positions that often got to the Bryant quarterback without being touched.
Bentonville had the field-position advantage throughout the game, often keeping the Hornets bottled up in their own end of the field.
At first, after the Hornets’ opening drive was stopped by the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the defense held the Tigers despite giving up a 41-yard run by Preston Crawford on first down. Sam Younger’s kick from 44 yards out had just enough leg and it was 3-0.
No biggee, right?
Well, it proved to be, as the Hornets offense struggled to just pick up first downs, let alone score. Bryant went three possessions without another first down. Bentonville took advantage of each of those as they built the 24-0 lead.
The Hornets’ scoring drive in the first half began at their own 42 after a squib kick that Matthew Sandidge returned to the 42. Scott dashed for 9 yards then Hefley completed an 18-yard pass to his running back at the 33.
The Hornets drove for the score, which came on a 9-yard completion to the Murray. Scoles’ PAT made it 30-7.
Lyons completed passes of 18 and 33 yards to Kam’ron Mays-Hunt and, with :29 left on the clock, Joey Escamilla ran it in to make it 37-7.
It was the fourth meeting between the two teams and the fourth time Bentonville has ended the season of a very good Bryant team.