For more photos from this event by Rick Nation, go here
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — On a night when everything had to go right for the Bryant Hornets, far too little did.
As a result, a remarkable season that featured vast improvement and a playoff run to a level previously unknown by a Bryant team came to an end. The undefeated North Little Rock Charging Wildcats stayed that way at the Hornets’ expense, advancing to the Class 7A State championship game with a 46-13 victory. The top-ranked Cats will face the defending State champion Fayetteville Bulldogs next Friday at War Memorial Stadium for the 2016 title.
The Hornets finish the season 9-4 — the most games a Bryant team has ever played in one season — with three of their losses coming at the hands of the State finalists, once to Fayetteville and twice to North Little Rock. The other was a loss to Fort Smith Northside, a team that the Hornets wound up outlasting in the playoffs.
The loss also marked the end of the high school careers of a group of seniors who wind up as the class involved in the most wins by any in the history of the program (27 over three years) — a group that adapted to considerable change in the coaching staff with Buck James entering as their new head coach. There was plenty of adversity. And, though it didn’t necessarily happen overnight, led by many of those seniors, the team bought in and turned the season on its head. The Hornets eventually stunned the Springdale Har-Ber Wildcats and the state with a road victory in the quarterfinals of the Class 7A Playoffs.
That set up a rematch with North Little Rock Friday night.
Bryant had won five of its last six games in the regular season and made that 7 of 8 adding wins over the first two opponents in the playoffs. The only blemish on the Hornets’ record over those last six weeks was a 38-7 loss to the Charging Wildcats that ended with the sportsmanship rule in effect.
The same wound up happening on the second trip to North Little Rock.
Though North Little Rock compiled a 12-0 lead early, Bryant had gotten on the board with a 38-yard Hayden Ray field goal.
The Hornets’ defense responded by forcing a North Little Rock punt. The Hornets put themselves in position to whittle the margin to 12-10 or 12-6. They were aided by a pass interference penalty. Moments later, sophomore quarterback Ren Hefley connected with Cameron Vail, who turned it into a 30-yard gain.
On the next play, however, Hefley fell victim to the North Little Rock blitz. He tried to get a pass away as he was being twisted down and appeared to cock his arm to fire. The ball came loose and North Little Rock’s Larry Hachett scooped and scored. James argued that it should be an incomplete pass but to no avail.
So the Hornets went from threatening to score to falling further behind.
Later, the Hornets trailed 25-3 when Ray dropped back to punt, Zavion Moore broke through to block it. The Charging Wildcats advanced the ball to the 5 and, from there, Wynton Ruth scored and the Hornets found themselves down 32-3.
Gamely, they came back with a drive to the North Little Rock 21, sparked by a 30-yard completion to Vail again.
From the 21, on a third-down play, Hefley’s throw under pressure to the end zone was picked off.
It was 32-3 at the half with North Little Rock set to get the ball again at the start of the second half.
The Hornets, however, created their lone break of the night, a fumble on the kickoff return that Nathan Mayes recovered. The offense came up with some razzle-dazzle on the first play from the North Little Rock 29.
Reece Coates set up at quarterback with Hefley on the left wing. Coates started right, got the ball on a reverse to Vail who then got it to Hefley who had circled back. Coates had broken free down the right sideline and Hefley got him the ball racing toward the end zone pylon. With a dive, he got there as a North Little Rock defender did but he got the ball over the goal line for a touchdown. Ray kicked the extra point and the Hornets appeared to grab the momentum, kindling some hope for a second-half comeback.
North Little Rock responded, however, with an 11-play, 74-yard drive for a touchdown. The drive featured Alex Day, who wound up rushing for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
Trailing 39-10, the Hornets suffered another miscue that produced points for the Charging Wildcats. The ball was fumbled on the kickoff return and North Little Rock recovered at the Bryant 22.
Five plays later, Day scored from the 2 to make it 46-10.
Bryant then drove from its 18 to the Wildcats’ 17. The big play was a 33-yard connection from Hefley to Coates.
But, on a third down at the 17, Hefley was sacked. Ray came on to extend his school and statewide record by booting his 19th field goal of the year to set the final score with 7:50 left to play.
With the sacks, the Hornets netted just 4 yards rushing in the game. Hefley along with Beaux Bonvillain, who tossed a pair of pass completions late in the game, combined to complete 16 of 33 passes for 246 yards. Coates had eight catches for 139 yards.
North Little Rock took the early 12-0 lead by scoring on each of its first two series. The Hornets went three-and-out to start the game then the Wildcats gained possession on a punt and put together an 11-play, 61-yard drive capped by Ruth’s 2-yard plunge.
With the Hornets offside on the extra point, the Wildcats decided to go for a two-point conversion only to be denied.
In turn, Bryant picked up a its initial first down on a pass from Hefley to Landon Smith but wound up punting again.
A seven-play drive covering 60 yards made it 12-0.
The Hornets’ answer was a march from their own 22 to the Charging Wildcats’ 21. The drive was highlighted by a Hefley-Coates connection for 35 yards. Ray drilled a 38-yard field goal to get Bryant on the board.