Photos by Kevin Nagle
The 18th Salt Bowl, the annual extravaganza centered around the annual grudge match between the Bryant Hornets and the Benton Panthers football teams, will be the first to be played on Saturday. It’ll be the only high school game that day after most of the state’s squads debut on Friday night.
For two years in a row, the attendance has been over 30,000 for the contest at War Memorial Stadium. Reports as of Friday had ticket sales at area Big Red stores ahead of last year’s pace. The only unknown is how attendance will be tempered, if at all, by the fact that it’s Labor Day weekend.
“Keeping It Salty” with a hashtag of “Salty Saturday” is the theme of the day.
Monday evening, the annual pre-Salt Bowl press conference was held on the third floor of the War Memorial press box. It was sponsored this year by Recycle Saline with Smarty the Fox on hand. Former state speaker of the house Shane Broadway, a Bryant alum, emceed.
Bryant head coach Buck James was joined by senior center Preston Kyzer and senior linebacker Antonio Todd. Benton head coach Brad Harris brought along senior safety Beau Brewer and senior cornerback D.J. Sturgis.
Here is a rundown of the plans for Saturday:
Kick off at 7 p.m.
War Memorial ticket gates will open at 5 p.m.
Game day ticket price is $8.
Pre-game day ticket sales available at any Saline County Big Red Store; ticket/t-shirt, $10.
Children under 5 years of age will be admitted free.
Benton will be the HOME Team and will occupy the WEST sideline and seating. (Press box side).
Bryant will be the VISITOR Team and will occupy the EAST sideline and seating.
Bryant fans and supporters will use ticket Gate #1 located on the East side.
Benton fans and supporters will use ticket gate #7 located on the West side.
Bryant and Benton Bands will enter the Stadium through Gate 11.
Bryant and Benton Bands will set up during pre-game in the “grass lot” below the vendor area.
Bryant Football busses will park in Southeast corner of WMS and access through Gate 3.
Bryant Band busses will park in Southeast corner of WMS as well.
Bryant Cheer and Dance bus will park in Southeast corner of WMS and enter through Gate 7.
Bryant Cheer and Dance will report to the WMS “recruit room” after entering Stadium.
Bryant “Pee Wee” participants should park in the East lot.
Bryant “Pee Wee” can enter Stadium through any gate. Must report to the North End Zone, 6 p.m.
Bryant “Pee Wee” will use the East ramp in the North End Zone.
WMS will offer 3 ticket windows on the WEST side and 8 ticket windows on the EAST side.
The North and South end zones will be closed for seating.
Saline Memorial will provide ambulance service for the Salt Bowl.
Fidelity Cable will provide a “delayed” stream of the Salt Bowl.
The Salt Bowl will be broadcast “Live” on radio for Bryant fans on Fox Sports Arkansas Radio, 690 AM and 93.7 FM, the official voice of the Bryant Hornets.
Public Address will be provided by Benton.
Chain Gang will be provided by Bryant.
WMS will provide “Jumbotron” operation.
Little Rock, Bryant and Benton law enforcement will be present inside the Stadium.
Fair Park, University and Pine/Cedar exits will be accessible for traffic on Game night.
Golf Course parking will be available on Game night.
Lot 8 Parking Pass spaces can be accessed off of Zoo Drive.
Here’s the comments of the players and coaches at the press conference:
James: “It being the second year that I’ve been involved in this, I understand a little bit about what’s going on. Last year, I think I walked through it oblivious. When it was all over with, I couldn’t believe the turnout, the type of participation from the fans and the media attention that it got.
“I’m really proud of our communities that give us an opportunity to do this. This is a great opportunity for any football program, to get started in January and then prepare for a game like this. I think anytime you have a chance to play in front of 25-, 30,000 people at a high school event, it’s something that you can’t measure from the preparation and what your kids go through in the off-season, when the games look a mile away and what your preparation can be in the weight room and your conditioning, your summer practices and doing the things it takes to try and be a good football team.
“I think our kids respond to it well. It’s a great rivalry. It’s an opportunity for Saline County and the two schools to showcase what they’re all about. The whole state, too, is into this. It’s something these guys will remember for the rest of their lives. That’s what I told these two young men when we came up here today, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to be able to come up and speak at a press conference when you’re 17-, 18-years old in high school, then you get to play in such a rivalry game and compete against a great school.
“It gives us a chance to prepare probably for, probably, one of the toughest conferences in the state; game in and game out, from top to bottom. It gives us an opportunity to hone in our skills and gives us a chance to have a team that can make a big playoff run. Eventually, our goal is to win a state championship, just like Coach Harris’ is.
“This is an opportunity to help you get ready for that game. I’ve played in several state championship games and nothing brings the coach involved in more than this one does. The time that it takes and everything that goes along with this game — a state championship game is not near the distraction that this game can be. It gets you ready. And with it being on a Saturday, it gives you a chance to think about how you’re going to take care of your players on Friday night, what they’ve got to do all day Friday, gives you a chance to see what it is to prepare for a state championship game. It’s great practice.
“I know of times when we came here before and played at noon and played on Saturday evening, it was a different deal. We’d drop kids off on Friday night and we’d look for them all day Saturday trying to find out where they were. So, it’s an opportunity to get a dress rehearsal for the ultimate challenge and that’s trying to win a state championship.
“Now, this next young man plays like linebacker for us. He started for us last year at outside linebacker and is really a great kid. I think both of these young men are great kids. (Antonio) did a really great job for us. I think last year Marvin Moody got a lot of the attention. They had to run away from Marvin and they ran over toward Antonio. I thought he did a tremendous job for us. He’s a great practice play and he’s a good student, a good person.
“Preston Kyzer started for us last year at center and guard. He’s a second generation Bryant Hornet. His dad was an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman for the Bryant Hornets back in the day. He’s an accomplished coon hunter, dogsman — he does a little bit of it all.
“I think you’re in for a treat with both of these young men.”
Todd: “We’ve been preparing for this game since January, since off-season. This is our second year under Coach James and we’ve pretty much adopted his coaching and his off-season methods, which sure isn’t easy.
“We’ve been waiting for this game, especially since it’s on a Saturday this year and it’s going to be kind of different. We’ve been preparing real hard for the game too. And we know, too, that every year is a great year competing against (Benton), getting us ready for the season. We just hope that each of us can have a good season after.”
Kyzer: “These guys, I know they’re going to have a good football team this year. They bring it every year. We’ve been practicing all summer and just grinding.
“I know Coach James and all the other coaches have pushed me to the limit, all them get-ups and sprints. It’s hard on a big boy.
“But we’re ready. We’ve grinded all summer. I know they’re going to have a good team so we’ve got to bring it.”
Harris: “First of all, I want to say thank you for having us again. I think this is a great event for probably the best high school football event in the state of Arkansas, by far, hands down.
The second thing I want to say is, I apologize for us being a little late. We got hung in traffic but was also had to get those last couple of reps in before left to prepare for these guys.
“The Salt Bowl, what else can you say? It’s a great atmosphere, the best in the state of Arkansas, bar none. My youngest son is playing college football down at Henderson and you get all the kids from different states talking about high school and you know Texas football is thrown at them and he said he’s already tired of it, a month into it, about how Texas high school football is the king and all that. They get started talking about it and he said I bet you haven’t played in front of 30,000. Not very many of them can say that. He’s got a couple of friends from Tulsa Union and Jenks, a big rivalry, and they talk about it being the ultimate ball game in Oklahoma. They draw 15,000. And we’re doubling that up. So I think we’ve got a great event here between two communities who really tremendously support their teams.
“This is my 20th year to be a football coach, my 13th year to be a head football coach. By far, the best place that I’ve ever coached at, worked at. This community is just tremendous with the outpouring of support that they give the athletic program. I know Bryant’s getting the same thing being in the same county and everything. What else can we say but ‘wow’.
“Very few kids, players get the opportunity to come into a game and play in front of 20,000, 30,000 like we do. Or get to come to a press conference. This is going to mean a lot for these guys down the road for them, in the future. I remember when I was a freshman in college and I had to get up and do some speaking and I froze up, probably a little like these guys getting nervous today. But this gives them and experience to carry with them a lifetime.
“The game’s about football but it’s also about us getting these guys and putting them in situations that are going to help them be better citizens, be better me in the community and everything else.
“To the football game: What a great opponent. Coach James has done a tremendous job with Bryant. We had a great ballgame last year. It was a defensive battle. We felt like we played about as good as you can get defensively in a 10-7 ballgame. We tried to pull one out there at the end and came up 11 yards short. But, what a great game. We hope we can, in the 2017 version, live up to that again. Bryant is a very talented team. We know that going into it. We’re going to have to play our best ballgame but we’ve been practicing since January, working hard in the weight room. We’ve done a lot this summer to prepare our young guys.
“We’re playing a lot of young kids this year. We have 92 kids on our football team right now. Forty-five of them are sophomores, if that gives you any idea. We’ll play some sophomores. Not trying to make any excuses but we will play some young guys.
“This (senior) class, we’ve got 20 kids in it. Only 17 of those guys have been with us for three years. We’ve had some guys that came out later as seniors. But this is a strong senior class that we like. It’s a smaller class and I brought two young men with me today that I feel like represent this class. Beau Brewer is a senior safety who also plays running back for us. He scored a touchdown for us here last year, our only touchdown. Then D.J. Sturgis is a cornerback for us.
“Beau is a second generation Benton Panther. His dad grew up, played at Benton, went on to Henderson and played, did a tremendous job. He’s on our little Wall of Fame and all that good stuff. So Beau knows what it’s about to play against Bryant and be in the Salt Bowl and to be a Benton Panther.
“D.J. was very similar to me last year. D.J. moved to us from Jacksonville and last year when he walked into the Salt Bowl, he was a little big-eyed. He was amazed by the amount of people here, the competition of the game, what leads up to it, the community support and everything about it.
“We’re extremely excited about this year. We feel like we’ve got a good young group of men that will play hard for us and what else could you ask for as a high school coach. Like Coach James said, everybody wants to win a state championship. Only one team’s going to do that. We want to be as competitive as we possibly can be at Benton and give ourselves a chance to win every ballgame. One of our primary goals is to make deep runs in the playoffs. We all want to win the Salt Bowl and a state championship but we want to make that deep run every year.
“We feel like last year, we had a little bit above average season, a 6-4 year, but then we made a run to the semi’s and we were really proud of that, proud of our guys’ effort. Hopefully, the 2017 version of the Benton Panthers will give you that same excitement.”
Brewer: “I think I have the same response of all four of us players. It’s all about the off-season and getting ready for it. It’s never easy. The Salt Bowl’s the biggest high school game that any of us will ever play. I feel like we’ve been getting ready for it.
“I know Bryant’s got a good team, some good returning players. I know we lost a good amount of people last year but I know we’ve got some good seniors returning. I feel like we’re going to give them a great game. They’re going to give it right back to us.
“Yeah, the off-season is not any good. Nobody likes it. But you just hope for the best outcome of it. You’ve got to give it your all to be the better player and we’ll figure it out on Saturday.”
Sturgis: “Like Coach said, I got big-eyed when I came out of the tunnel. I couldn’t hear anything. All I could hear was the fans cheering.
“Me, coming from Jacksonville, I really never heard anything about the Salt Bowl. I didn’t know it was that big. I thought it was just like a regular game. Then, I come out and see nothing but stands fill, maroon, blue.
“I just want to thank God for this opportunity.
“Another thing, like Beau said, during off-season — nobody likes off-season — but ever since the season ended, we got right back on it just for Sept. 2. We’ve been preparing ever since January just for these guys.
“I know it’s going to be a great game between both of us. I just want to say, go Benton.”