Photos by Kevin Nagle
The Little Rock Henderson Hawks eighth grade team faced a third-and-9 at their own 21 yard-line Tuesday night at Bryant Stadium. Quarterback Kendrick Johnson lined up in the shotgun with the Bryant Blue Hornets of Bethel Middle School showing blitz. Sure enough, linebacker Brayden Godwin knifed through on the snap and nearly caught it before it could get back to Johnson.
Though Johnson managed to scoop the ball up, he was driven down in short order by Bethel’s Hayden Schrader for a loss of 10 yards.
It was just one of eight plays in 14 snaps in the first half in which the Hawks were pinned back with lost-yardage plays. And one of 13 times in 24 plays in the ballgame despite the fact that Bethel coach Josh Akers tried to a bunch of players into the contest.
The Hornets’ defense was so stingy Henderson had a total offense of minus-24 yards in the first half. The Hawks didn’t manage a first down until the last three minutes of the contest.
Bethel’s offense, in the meantime, was marked by River Gregory’s 100 yards rushing with a touchdown on 11 carries. In addition, quarterback Garrett Wilson completed 6 of 7 passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns in just the first half. Austin Schroeder and Baker Gray caught the TD strikes.
The result was a 26-8 win to open the 2016 season.
“It’s a fun group of guys to coach,” said Akers. “They’re hungry. They pick up well on everything we’re throwing at them.
“It’s a big win for us,” he added. “Our goal this year is to establish a brotherhood and hang a banner at the end of this season, 8-0, and it took this first win to get there.”
The Hornets scored on their first three possessions of the game and, on the fourth, reached the Henderson 5 before running out of downs in the final seconds of the half.
A touchdown drive capped by Xavier Foote’s 3-yard scoring run to open the second half made it 26-0.
The Hawks went backwards on the opening series. They wound up punting on a fourth-and-29 from their own 28. A short kick gave the Hornets great field position at the Henderson 44.
A pair of penalties pushed them back but, on a third-and-10, Wilson fired a pass to Schrader for a fresh set of downs. Two plays later, Schroeder hauled in Wilson’s 10-yard throw for a touchdown.
Brock Funk’s extra point attempt was undermined by a poor exchange and it was 6-0 with :17.7 left in the first quarter.
Henderson went to the air on its subsequent possession. Tayvlon Bynum completed a second-down throw to Kendarius Ice but it only picked up 2 yards as the Hornets converged. A third-down completion to Ice was sniffed out by Godwin, who dropped the receiver for a loss of 4, forcing a punt.
A 21-yard return by Joseph Young set up Bethel’s four-play, 45-yard TD drive. Gregory put the Hornets in scoring position with a 33-yard burst. Momenst later, he slashed into the end zone from 12 yards out.
This time, Funk added the PAT out of the hold of Hart Penfield to make it 13-0 with 5:56 left in the half.
Once again, the Hornets’ defense drove back the Hawks including the play on which Godwin nearly snatched the snap. An 18-yard punt that was returned to the Henderson 28 by Ty Bahnks, set up the third score.
Bahnks caught a 9-yard pass from Wilson and, despite a holding penalty that negated the next play, Wilson set up the touchdown with an 11-yard keeper. His strike to Gray followed and Funk booted it to 20-0 with 2:54 left in the half.
Will Hathcote and Bahnks combined to sack Johnson then Penfield hauled down Bynum for a loss.
With just over a minute left in the half, the Hawks went for it on a fourth-and-25 from their own 30. Bynum’s run was stopped well short.
In the final minute, the Hornets drove to the 5 with Wilson completing a pair of passes, one for 13 yards to Ryan Riggs and another for 10 yards to Bahnks.
They reached the 5 once and were pushed back by a penalty. Schrader got those 5 yards back but a fourth-down run was stopped and Henderson got the ball for long enough to lose yardage one more time.
Bethel’s opening march of the second half covered 72 yards in eight plays. Wilson’s 18-yard run started the possession and a major penalty was added on. Gregory pounded the ball to the 4 on five consecutive totes. Though a procedure penalty pushed them back, the Hornets made up for it. Gregory bashed to the 5 on his final carry of the game. A play later, Foote got the call for the 6.
In turn, Henderson got into scoring position with a long kickoff return by Johnson. But they suffered three more lost-yardage plays on tackles by Koby Melton and Jack Powell. Penalties kept the Hawks alive for a bit, however. Josh Mellor dropped Bynum for yet another loss and, a play later, a fourth-down pass from the Bryant 24 fell incomplete.
The Bryant Blue reserves were unable to pick up a first down and, with 3:48 left, the Hornets punted for the first and only time in the game. The short boot was field at the Bethel 32 by Johnson but he gave ground and was dropped by Schrader back at the 44.
Bynum darted for 28 yards and, a play later, Johnson found the end zone. Johnson’s run added the two-point conversion with 2:33 to go.
The game was marred by 24 penalties between the two teams with 13 of those costing the Hornets 91 yards.
“Offensively, we executed very well,” Akers said. “We were very disciplined.
“Defensively, my hat’s off to Coach (Colton) Bond and Coach (Adam) Belcher for their work on that side of the ball,” he added. “They really coached those guys up. We brought pressure a few times and it was organized, looked good. Everybody hit the right spot and it was successful for us.
“Special teams looked really good,” the coach continued. “I was pleased with Brock. I know he missed a couple of extra points but he’s a good kicker for us and that’s a big boost for him starting the season off.
“All in all, I’m extremely happy,” Akers concluded. “I’m glad to walk out with a ‘W’ and move on to next week.”
Bethel returns to action on Thursday, Sept. 8, against Cabot North. Kickoff is set for 5:30 p.m. The game will be followed by a freshman contest.