Photos by Rick Nation
CONWAY — Despite the 28-22 loss to Lake Hamilton earlier this season, the Bryant Hornets freshman team still had a decent chance to gain at least a share of the Central Arkansas Junior High Conference championship. All they had to do was beat the league’s other first-place team, Conway Blue, then hope that the Wampus Cats knock off Lake Hamilton. The Hornets win out and there’s at worst, a three-way tie for the title.
That’s why Thursday’s trip to Conway’s John McConnell Stadium was so crucial. And why the Hornets’ struggles for the first three quarters was so frustrating. Conway Blue built a 26-6 lead going into the fourth quarter then held off a furious Bryant comeback for a 26-21 victory to remain unbeaten in conference play.
There have been years in which teams tied for the league crown with two losses — and this year could be one of those — but the Hornets will need plenty of help and a flawless run through the rest of their schedule beginning with next Thursday’s home game against Little Rock Catholic.
Bryant’s comeback began when wide receiver Jake East hauled in a 20-yard pass from Beaux Bonvillain to cap a seven-play 65-yard drive early in the final period. Cameron Coleman had sparked the margin with a 19-yard run and, later, DeAmonte Terry blasted 17 yards.
Landon Smith ran in a two-point conversion to make it 26-14 with 6:51 still to play.
After Conway covered Bryant’s onside kick, the Hornets forced a fumble on the Cats’ second play. Nathan Mayes recovered at the Conway 48. It took longer than they might’ve liked but the Hornets found the end zone again. Terry contributed an 11-yard run and Austin Kelly turned a quick screen pass into an 8-yard gain. Coleman plowed 7 yards to the 11 but, after a penalty and a pair of incomplete passes, the Hornets faced a fourth down at the 16. Bonvillain threw a fade to Garrett Misenheimer who leaped while screening off the defender with his body and hauled down the touchdown pass with 3:08 to go.
Chase Kincaid added the extra point to make it 26-21.
The Hornets stuffed three running plays by Conway. On third down, Blue quarterback Beau Hadley stayed cool on a bad snap, scooped it up and handed to Shamar Harper who was stopped at the line of scrimmage.
That allowed Conway to punt the ball and the kick left the Hornets 71 yards away from a win with 1:52 left.
Bonvillain completed an 11-yard pass to Kelly then a 12-yard shot to Landon Smith who scampered out of bounds to stop the clock. Phillip Isom-Green did the same thing on an 8-yard swing pass to the Conway Blue 45.
East got open deep on the next snap but Bonvillain’s pass was just beyond his reach. The quarterback then kept for a first down to the 40. A pass down the left side was caught by Kelly at the 20 but he couldn’t keep a foot inbounds and it was ruled incomplete.
But the Hornets continued to scramble. A pass to Jesse Smith was jarred loose for an incompletion then a bubble screen to Kelly was turned back after getting 2 yards.
Facing a fourth-and-8 at the Conway Blue 38 with less than 30 seconds left, the Hornets tried to run a tunnel screen to Kelly. He made the catch but Conway Blue defensive back Karlton Hood snuck past a Bryant blocker and tripped up Kelly short of the first down ending the Hornets’ comeback hopes with :19.9 to play.
Very little seemed to go Bryant’s way before that closing flurry, however. Conway opened the game with a 70-yard touchdown drive that featured Harper, who would rush 16 times for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Hadley ran for 111 yards on 10 tries with a score. But all but 17 of those yards came in the first half and first two minutes of the third quarter. After that, the Hornets defense cut them down.
The first two touchdowns were disheartening. On that opening drive, the Cats had reached the Bryant 33 when a bad snap rolled past Haldey. But Harper scooped it up and sprinted 33 yards up the middle for the score.
Alex Pena kicked the extra point with 4:13 left in the first quarter.
At the end of the half, Conway had the ball at their own 8 with under 30 seconds left when Hadley, on a keeper designed to protect the ball, broke clear down the right sideline and sprinted the distance for a 92-yard touchdown run with :18.5 left.
The extra point was blocked but a 7-0 halftime lead had turned into a 13-0 edge in stunning fashion.
In between, frustration was the Hornets’ lot. They answered Conway Blue’s opening march with one of their own. Behind the running of Cameron Coleman and a 16-yard pass from Bonvillain to Misenheimer, the Hornets faced a second-and-1 at the Conway 28.
Bonvillain kept on a sneak and appeared to have a first down. A flag came in and a rare penalty for a teammate assisting the runner was called. As it turned out, however, the penalty was declined because, on a late whistle and after the quarterback’s forward progress had been halted, it was ruled that Bonvillain had fumbled the ball. Conway Blue had recovered.
The Wampus Cats threatened to score again, driving to the Bryant 28 when Hadley was dropped for a loss on a fourth-down play.
The Hornets used two fake punts to keep the subsequent drive alive. From the 39, Kelly ran for a first down. From midfield, with Conway Blue playing to stop the fake, Kelly started to run around the right side then stopped and threw back to the left where Misenheimer hauled in the throw and powered for the first down at the Conway Blue 38.
But Bonvillain was sacked on the first play from there and the Hornets wound up lining up for a punt for a third time. This time, Kelly booted it away and East nearly downed it at the 1 but he slipped into the end zone and Conway was awarded the touchback.
Harper lost yardage and a holding penalty pushed the Cats back to the 8 as time was running out, before Hadley’s touchdown sprint.
The Hornets went three-and-out to start the second half and, on Conway Blue’s first snap, Harper broke a 64-yard touchdown run that made it 19-0.
This time, Bryant answered. Coleman lashed for 8 yards then 16 but a holding penalty pushed the Hornets back. On a second-and-16, however, Isom-Green broke a 47-yard run down the right sideline to get the Hornets on the board with 5:31 left in the third quarter.
And, when Conway Blue suffered a fumble on its first play of the next drive, Hayden Knowles recovered for Bryant at the 15.
That brought only more frustration as, three plays later, a fourth-down pass fell incomplete and Conway Blue got the ball back on downs at the 10.
A big stop by Marvin Moody, LaRae Williams and Knowles helped for Conway to punt the ball back and, after a short kick, the offense was back in business 63 yards away from a score.
The opportunity was foiled, however, when Hood intercepted a pass and returned it 43 yards for a Conway Blue touchdown that made it 26-6 with 1:04 left in the third quarter.
CONWAY BLUE 26, BRYANT 21
Score by quarters
BRYANT 0 0 6 15 — 21
Conway Blue 7 6 13 0 — 26
CONWAY BLUE — Harper 33 run (Pena kick), 4:13
CONWAY BLUE — Hadley 92 run (kick blocked), 0:18.5
CONWAY BLUE — Harper 64 run (kick failed), 6:31
BRYANT — Isom-Green 47 run (kick failed), 5:31
CONWAY BLUE — Hood 43 interception return (Pena kick), 1:04
BRYANT — East 20 pass from Bonvillain (L.Smith run), 6:51
BRYANT — Misenheimer 16 pass from Bonvillain (Kincaid kick), 3:08
BRYANT Conway Blue
First downs 16 8
Rushes-yds 35-188 26-252
Passing 13-31-1 1-2-0
Passing yds 115 33
Punts-avg 2-38.0 2-35.5
Fumbles-lost 3-1 3-2
Penalties-yds 5-40 6-43
Rushing: BRYANT, Coleman 18-98, Isom-Green 4-53, Terry 6-48, Kelly 1-6, Bonvillain 6-(-17); CONWAY BLUE, Harper 16-141, Hadley 10-111.
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, Bonvillain 12-30-1-103, Kelly 1-1-0-12; CONWAY BLUE, Hadley 1-2-0-33.
Receiving: BRYANT, Kelly 7-31, Misenheimer 3-44, East 1-20, L.Smith 1-12, Isom-Green 1-8; CONWAY BLUE, Henderson 1-33.