By Rob Patrick
The last time the Bryant Hornets opened the season against the Conway Wampus Cats, they[more] won a 30-15.
At the time, it may have been the most prestigious win in the downtrodden history of the Hornets’ football program. And it served to spark that team to not only the first winning season at Bryant in 13 years, but the program’s first and only unbeaten season as well.
It was 1999. And the Hornets went on to beat Conway in the first round of the playoffs too before getting upset by Fort Smith Northside in the second round.
That opener was just the second meeting between the Hornets and the Wampus Cats. Just three years later, the two schools were placed in the same conference and a budding rivalry developed that has featured some of the most exciting games in Bryant history.
There was an overtime stemwinder in 2002 that featured future NFL star Peyton Hillis who was stopped at the goal line in overtime to preserve Bryant’s 36-33 win.
There was a gut-wrenching 27-22 loss in 2005, which, as it turns out, was the last time Conway has beaten Bryant though they’ve tangled every year since.
There was another heart-stopping double-overtime game in 2010 that Bryant won 34-30 and last year’s 31-28 Hornets win on a Jace Denker field goal at the end of regulation.
Now, the two teams are no longer in the same conference. Bryant has been moved back to the South, the league the Hornets had been a part of up until 2002.
They remain rivals, however. Perhaps even more so, based on the tenor of the games, than Bryant’s higher-profile rivalry.
As usual, Conway comes to town with big, quality linemen on both sides of the ball. Offensively, that includes returning starters at center (Blane Joyner, 6-2, 246), left guard Brannon Kotch (6-1, 260) and left tackle Bryton Booher (6-8, 310).
Cody Rhoades is the new starter at quarterback but the Cats have a proven playmaker in Brandon Cox, who is listed as a starting wide receiver but may show up anywhere — at running back or quarterback.
Similarly, Bryant returns three standouts on the offensive line in tackles Ian Shuttleworth (6-2, 280) and Jordan Jones (6-4, 285) along with center Blaine Jackson (6-0, 225).
The Hornets also have proven commodities at quarterback with Hayden Lessenberry (5-11, 220) and running back Jalen Bell (5-7, 165).
The defenses are similar too. Conway returns just one starter, corner A.J. Burton. But the front seven, as usual, is strong and active.
Bryant has three starters back in defensive end Tim Kelly, middle linebacker Tyree Reese and corner Aaron Bell. Hornets coaches are excited about their front seven too.
Bryant has won the last six meetings and leads the series 10-4 since 1998. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Indications are that the torrents of rain brought on by the last vestiges of what was Hurricane Isaac may be starting to taper off by then.