Photos by Kevin Nagle
“We’re excited about this week. We’re excited about getting football started,” was the way emcee Shane Broadway opened the annual Salt Bowl press conference at War Memorial Stadium’s press box Monday while the Pulaski Robinson Senators and the Hot Springs Lakeside Rams were battling on the field below.
It’s the 17th Salt Bowl pitting the Bryant Hornets against the Benton Panthers and the 45th meeting on the gridiron between the rival schools. The series began in 1974. In 2005, they played twice, once in the Salt Bowl (Benton’s lone win since the trophy started being awarded in 2000) and once in the playoffs (Benton prevailed again).
But it’s the first time both teams enter the contest with a new coach. For Bryant, it’s Buck James and, for Benton, it’s Brad Harris. Each coach brought along a pair of seniors for the press conference. Harris was joined by quarterback Nate Beck and safety Preston Stone. James had senior kicker Hayden Ray and senior safety Phillip Isom-Green in tow. Unfortunately, Isom-Green will miss the season for the Hornets due to a knee injury that will require surgery. He suffered the injury at Bryant pre-season scrimmage at Pulaski Academy.
The series has been one of streaks. Benton dominated the first 25 years but, since 1999, Bryant has done so including last season’s 37-13 win.
Bryant went on to a 9-3 season that included a Class 7A playoff bye then a second-round game against eventual champion Fayetteville that the Hornets narrowly lost.
Benton too went 9-3 and made a bid to get to the Class 6A championship game for the second year in a row only to be denied in the semifinals by Greenwood.
Broadway noted that this year’s theme is “More Than Just A Game” and, after mentioning sponsors, noted that ticket sales are ahead of last year when, with a rush of sales in the last three days, the game drew 34,086, a record for a high school football game in the state.
Details of this year’s festivities can be found here.
After introducing the players and coaches, Broadway turned the presentation to Harris since the visiting team each year speaks first.
Harris: “First of all, I want to say thank you for having us here today. I think this is an awesome tradition that Benton, Bryant and Saline County has going for them in the Salt Bowl. What a great rivalry. Two communities come together to produce a ballgame like this.
“I told our guys today, there’s no other schools in the state of Arkansas that do this. I’ve coached in northwest Arkansas, around Fayetteville, Springdale and they don’t hype it up as much as this. That’s a big pat on the back to everybody in this community that promotes the Salt Bowl, and all the sponsors.
“Now onto this year’s Salt Bowl. This is all a new thing to me. I was fortunate enough, I’ve been here for two years now as a defensive coordinator, and I can remember walking out the tunnel two years ago with my two boys. What a great atmosphere it was. My oldest son, Drew, played in the game two years ago and when we walked out, his comment was, ‘This is awesome.’ He wished he could play in front of this big a crowd every time.
“Basically, that’s what you look at in this game, an awesome environment. And what high school kid would not want to play in this environment. It’s just an awesome thing for our kids to experience this as players.
“Growing up in a small community in Gurdon, Arkansas, if I played in front of two or three thousand, I thought that was a packed house. I was fortunate to play here for a State championship my junior year but I don’t remember War Memorial Stadium having near this many people when we played in it. What a great, great environment.
“The first thing I want to do is talk about our team a little bit then I can turn it over to these guys and let them talk a little bit more in detail.
“The 2016 Benton Panthers, coming off two great years. We’ve won 20 ball games over the last two years so we’ve got some big shoes to fill with this senior class. The senior class has been a part of those 20 wins, though. That’s what a lot of people overlook. A lot of people feel like they haven’t contributed but the two guys that are here with me today have contributed a large amount to us.
“Preston Stone is a two-year starter for us. He’s contributed to those 20 wins. Nate Beck started the first half of the season for us last year with an injury to Cason Maertens. We’ve got several other seniors that I could go on and talk about that has helped contribute to those 20 wins.
“We’re excited about the opportunity this year to, hopefully, compete for our first win in nine years (in the Salt Bowl). These kids have really bought into a new philosophy just a little bit this year, with some different changes when Coach (Scott) Neathery stepped into the athletic director’s position and I was fortunate enough to become the new head football coach at Benton. We bought into that blue-collar mentality. Hard work wins every day, punching the clock so to speak.
“I really like what we have on our team as far as the work ethic and the attitude that they bring to practice every day. We’re really looking forward to this season.
“Like I said, the biggest thing that we have in front of us with the Salt Bowl is that the last several years, it’s been dominated by Bryant and we want to make this a rivalry again. In the grand scheme of things, Benton’s ahead but it’s been since the late 80’s when Benton was winning and dominating. Since 1999, I think Bryant has won 13 of the past meetings. The only two victories we have were in 2005.
“So we’re looking forward to this year, making it more competitive ballgame and hopefully winning our first Salt Bowl in 10 years, basically.
“Defensively, we’ve got six returning starters, which is a great number. We really like our defense. Going into this week, we’ve got eight guys that are seniors that are starters and three juniors so we have a pretty veteran team. We’re real excited about that defense and me being the former defensive coordinator, I really like that. I switched sides and I’m actually coaching running backs now but I still put a lot of emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.
“Offensively, we’re kind of the opposite. We’ve got three guys coming back from last year. We’re starting seven seniors and four juniors but we’ve got five or six sophomores that you’re going to see play most likely Friday night. So we’ve got some youth out there, some inexperience. But, offensively, they’ve really bought into doing what we’ve asked them to do.
“Like I said, I really like the work ethic and attitude these guys bring to the table every day and we’re excited about the upcoming season.”
Stone: “First of all, I just want to say what an honor it is to be here and to be able to play in a game of this magnitude. It’s been a dream of mine since I moved here in seventh grade. I’ve been watching the Salt Bowl all these years, guys that I’ve been looking up to. It’s just a great experience that other high school students in the state and even the country don’t get to experience playing in a game of this size. It’s just a great thing for us to get to be a part of.
“Our defense this year — I’ve been playing since my sophomore year. I played corner my last two years but got position-switched around. Now I’m playing the hybrid linebacker-safety type. I’ve personally enjoyed the change because it frees me up to play a little bit more.
“But our defense has been looking pretty stout. We’ve got a lot of guys coming back, the linebacker crew is solid as they always have been. The main thing about our defense, we’re just flying around the ball every time. That’s what we hang our hat on, just effort every play, just flying around to the ball.
“I’m just excited for the game Friday night.”
Beck: “First of all, just like Preston said, it’s an honor to be here and play in this game. I’ve actually grown up in Benton, my entire life, growing up going to the Salt Bowl as far as I can remember.
“Offensively, we don’t have as many returning starters as we do on defense. But our receivers are all seniors. We have Trey Pepper, Ty Callahan, two of our best receivers we have on the team. And Khamian Riley who’s really coming on, stepping up. It’s going to be the first time he’s played in a varsity game.
“At running back, we have Brandon Hunter back, which is huge for us because he contributed the last two years and contributed a lot last year.
“The offensive line is fairly new with the exception of Brett Tittle who started last year at center.
“Our new offense, we’re getting used to it. The coaches have really helped us grow and learn this new offensive scheme and we’re really buying into it. I feel like we’re going to have a lot of confidence going into this game and this season.”
James: “I just want to reiterate what these guys said. I think this is a huge honor to be able to play in this game. I’ve been around high school football for almost 30 years and this is by far one of the biggest opening games that I’ve ever heard of or even seen. A few years ago, back when Coach Neathery was an assistant coach, I came to a couple of Salt Bowl games and it was quite a game and quite an atmosphere. I can only imagine what’s it’s going to be like since it’s grown so much.
“But I think it’s great for our communities. It’s great for our off-season program, our kids, to be able to play in a game like this, to be able to prepare from your last game to your first game and have so much on the line, I think is a huge accomplishment as far as our off-season goes. I think that’s where it makes teams better.
“Unlike Benton, we’re a really young football team. We’ll have two returning starters on offense and looks like maybe six on defense. We’re going to probably start as many as seven or eight sophomores. So our football team is young.
“I was told a stat the other day that sort of surprised me. We haven’t had a senior offensive lineman return starter in the last three years. So every year we have all senior offensive linemen and this year we’re going to start two sophomores.
“That’s something that we should be able to grow on in the future. I think our football team has really come around a long ways since I’ve gotten there. When I got there in January, I wasn’t real sure what coaches were going to stay or leave. Really, coach Brad Stroud is the only guy that’s back on our staff from last year. So it’s been a complete overhaul. The kids are learning us and we’re learning the kids.
“I think what Coach (Paul) Calley has done here has been phenomenal. I think that people don’t give him enough credit for what he was able to accomplish at Bryant High School. And, you know, to be able to keep that tradition going — we’re going to have to do it with a lot of young kids.
“But the thing that I like about our people is that they work extremely hard. There’s no way I could’ve come in there and did it just like Coach Calley did it. It has been a work in progress because, especially your juniors and seniors always know what they’ve always done. There’s been an acclimation process.
“I think our kids have been resilient. They’ve worked their tales off. I think they’ve tried to buy into what we’re asking them to do and to do it to the best of their abilities. I really like this football team. I really like going to football practice. I think they enjoy the game. I think they enjoy each other. And I think that they will have a lot of fun.
“We’ve put them in some bad situations this year just to see how they reacted. The thing I can always say after each time that we’ve done that is they’ve always played extremely hard. I think that’s probably the number one battle for most high school coaches is to get kids to play hard especially in this kind of heat and this early in the year.
“But when you play a game of this magnitude, I think it’s like a week four game or a playoff-type atmosphere. So our kids have to be ready to play. In this type of arena, that’s a big challenge. I think our guys have really done an outstanding job. I’m really proud of the effort that they’ve put into this football season. We’ve done it a lot different than what it’s been done in the past. We’ve spent many hours and I think our guys are starting to see some of the hard work pay off.
“You know, I don’t know how that will show in wins and losses. I wish I could promise that. But I can tell you that from the attitude and effort of our young men, I think it’s going to be something that our community can be proud of. I think that we’ll represent this community in the right way. We’re going to play hard and we’re going to play fast.
“In saying that, I think that being able to play this caliber of competition our first week, does nothing but help our football team for when we go into conference play. And that’s what it’s all about anyway, trying to get through your conference, try to win a conference championship, getting to the playoffs then fighting for a State championship opportunity.
“It just takes a step at a time. You have to build confidence. You have to build some unity and, with that, will come success. And sometimes success is not something that kids are used to or they want it to come easy. We’ve asked them to do it the right way and take a step at a time, put a brink on the ground and build it one brick at a time. I think our kids have accepted that challenge.
“Today, I brought Phillip Isom-Green. I was telling him today he’s sort of famous on YouTube, a guy that ranted about LSU and people recruiting LSU. Phillip Isom-Green came up and didn’t even know him from Adam. I thought it was sort of neat.
“Phillip tore his ACL last year and has worked extremely, extremely hard to get back and to play. He’s a very, very talented young man. I told somebody that Phillip’s probably one of the best outside linebacker-strong safety type of guys that we’ve had since I’ve been coaching. He tore his knee in the scrimmage game and it just makes us sick. But Phillip’s a winner, a winner on and off the field. I told Phillip the other day that there’s a bigger purpose for him and I think he will fulfill that. Whatever he does in life, he’s going to be successful in it. I’m proud to have coached Phillip.
“Hayden Ray is a kicker. I can go on record right now and say that I’d probably be a seven-time State champion if I’d had Hayden as my kicker. I think four times we got beat and we scored more touchdowns than the team that beat us.
“So, having a kicker is exciting. I thought if I was going to bring anybody to a press conference and be proud to have him here, it was going to be our kicker.
“To watch Hayden kick is exciting. The ball explodes off his foot. He’s very accurate. He’s a hard worker and he’s diligent in everything he does. I’m very excited to be able to go for a field goal. I think that’s going to be one of the most refreshing things that I can say. We’ve always gone for it on the 20 or 10 or 15. Now we’re going to be able to kick a field goal if it’s fourth and long inside the 20.”
Ray: “Thank you, coach. I’ve been playing football ever since I was a sophomore. I didn’t start as a sophomore but there was a senior in front of me that, basically, taught me how to kick. I didn’t really know anything about football until I started then.
“I started last year and, let me just tell you, the Salt Bowl is unlike anything you will ever experience in your life. Just the enthusiastic fans and just the exhilaration that you get whenever you walk onto that field, looking at the lights, looking at the scoreboard, looking everywhere. I mean there’s thousands of fans. There’s just nothing like it.
“I think our team this year is very strong. I think, like coach said, we don’t have that many starters coming back from last year but I just think we’ll be able to pull something off that people won’t expect.
“Coach James has taught the team maturity, responsibility and, most of all, how to have good character, and that’s what makes a good football team. If everyone has all those things, we’ll be able to have a great season. I think that’s just one of the biggest things that you could ever ask for in a team, that, if we all work hard and give our 110 percent every single game, no matter win or lose, we’ll always be winning just knowing that we played our best.
“The Benton and Bryant game will be a challenging game to play. The team with the most dedication, the most heart will come out on top. And that could be either of us. I just appreciate the opportunity. I’m honored to be here. The Salt Bowl will definitely be one of the best ones that we’ve ever had.”
Isom-Green: “This will be the first time that I haven’t been able to play in the Salt Bowl. Last Tuesday, I tore my ACL in my left knee along with some other ligaments so I’ll be out for the season. I would’ve been a three-year starter this year.
“Ever since I’ve moved here — I moved from Georgia — this is all anybody talks about, the Salt Bowl and how big of a game it is. I remember my sophomore year running out of the tunnel. I got shocked. My jaw hit the ground. There were so many people and it was so loud. I remember it was like the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in.
“It’s been hard for our football team this off-season, getting acclimated to new coaches, because it’s different from Coach Calley.
“Coach James has taught us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Be disciplined and play your way out of situations you’re dealt with because you’re not always going to be winning by three touchdowns. You know, there are going to be times when a team comes out and they’re going to be on fire that night and it’s just not your night. We’ve got to be able to go against all adversity and be able to play and be disciplined and focus in, especially when we’re tired.
“Coach James has done an amazing job of getting us conditioned and with our strength. We lift four or five times a week and we’re running and conditioning every day. We’re real big on flying to the ball and, if you sprint to the ball every play, it’ll cover up your mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you’re flying to the ball, everything’s going to be okay; just giving that effort and having that passion for the game.
“I remember over the summer, anything we’d do, we did it and we’d tell ourselves, we’re going to be the best and we’re second to nobody so we’ve got to practice like that. So every day, they’d hold us to high expectations and, whether we were going to 7-on-7’s or team camp, they expect us to perform like we’re the best.
“I’m looking forward to watching my brothers play this season. It’s going to suck that I can’t be out there but I know that I’m there in spirit.
Like Coach James said, we’re young so, as a senior, I’ve had to kind of help mentor our sophomores and tell them what to expect and, when in doubt, just stay calm and play football. We’re real big on just doing your job. Don’t worry about the person next to you not doing their job. If you do your job and everybody else does their job then hold yourself accountable when you don’t do your job then we’re going to be okay.
“Like everybody said, it’s an honor. Looking back on my high school career, it’s amazing that I can say I played in front of 30,000, 35,000 people every year for the Salt Bowl.
“Two years ago, we tied. Last year, we lost a teammate. We were playing for Ray. This year, I really think it’s going to be the start of a new era, a new dynasty for Bryant football with Coach James’ program and his philosophies. I really think this is going to be the start of something special for our football team.”