Hornets, Charging Wildcats vie for shot at share of conference lead

Bryant's defense, including Stanley Oxner (19), Ryan Cox (91) and Trey Sowell (37) will be charged with slowing down North Little Rock's Tim Johnson this week. (Photo by Rick Nation)By Rob Patrick

Both the Bryant Hornets and the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats will host a game in the Class 7A playoffs. The question is, which one will host a first-round game on Friday, Nov. 13, and which will have a bye that weekend and open at home on Friday, Nov. 20.

Oh, and the winner of their game tonight at North Little Rock will probably finish the regular season with at least a share of the 7A-Central Conference championship too.

Six teams from the Central (and the 7A-West) advance to the playoffs but the top two teams from both leagues earn byes in the first round while seeds three and four host seeds six and five, respectively, to get the playoffs started.

The Hornets and the Charging Wildcats are two of four teams going into tonight’s play, tied for the lead in the Central at 4-1.

Cabot and Russellville, the other two teams, take on second-division teams this week but finish against each other next Thursday when Bryant and North Little Rock finish against two teams at or near the bottom of the league.

So, it figures that the winner of tonight’s Bryant-North Little Rock game and Thursday’s Cabot-Russellville game will share the title and earn the byes.[more]

At first glance — and second and third too — when the Charging Wildcats and the Hornets take the field, it will be obvious which team is bigger, faster and stronger. The Wildcats may be the most physically gifted team in the State.

Bryant will look, as usual, pretty unassuming.

But, in the last 10 years — the winning era of Bryant football — the Hornets have often come up against teams that are bigger, faster and stronger. Usually that was the case anytime they’ve played against Pine Bluff, El Dorado, Texarkana and Camden Fairview, Conway, Little Rock Central, or North Little Rock.

Yet, the Hornets have winning records against all those teams over that span except a 3-4 mark against the Central Tigers.

But it’s difficult to go beyond that when trying to apply history to this year’s Bryant-North Little Rock contest. The Hornets eked out a 14-13 win in overtime last year when a bad snap on the Wildcats’ extra point attempt led to a miss to end the game.

Bryant sophomore quarterback Blake Davidson got his first start in that game after taking over for Jimi Easterling who was lost for the season in the first quarter of the previous week’s game at Cabot. In the second quarter, however, Davidson suffered a hand injury that ended his season and the Hornets turned to third-string quarterback Caleb Milam, another sophomore.

This year, Easterling is back healthy and so is Davidson.

Two years ago, the last time Bryant visited North Little Rock, the Hornets came into the game with only a tie to Fort Smith Southside to blemish their record. They had just posted a decisive win over Cabot, which certainly parallels this season.

North Little Rock was fired up on Senior Night but came into the game with a 2-6 overall record. The Hornets took them lightly, the Wildcats treated the game like their playoffs (since they weren’t going to the real ones) and the upset commenced with North Little Rock winning 21-0. It was the Cats’ lone league victory of the season.

There will be no taking them lightly this year.

Both teams come into the game with stellar running backs. For North Little Rock, it’s Tim Johnson, described as a classic scat back. At 5-6, he’s often hard to locate behind the massive Wildcats’ offensive line. He’s rushed for about 900 yards this season and provides a big threat on special teams as well.

For Bryant, there’s senior Chris Rycraw, who figures to set a new school record for rushing yards for a career during the game, eclipsing Matt White's 2,866 yards. He needs about 20 yards.


The school-record 1,500 yards that Rycraw pounded out on the ground during 2008 becomes even more impressive when you realize he did it despite the fact that he was held under 100 yards in four different games.

Not to mention the fact that everybody and their best friend knew that he was going to be running it especially after Easterling and Davidson went down.

It was a credit to him, the Bryant offensive line and the innovations that the Bryant coaching staff came up with along the way.

Interestingly enough, the Hornets were 3-1 in those four games including the overtime win over North Little Rock. Plus, the Hornets have won both of the games in which Rycraw finished with less than 100 yards this season.

Rycraw is on a pace to eclipse his total for last season before the playoffs even begin.

No doubt, the Wildcats will be focused on trying to shut Rycraw down and, with many of the players that starred on that defense last season back, they might do it. The question becomes, is that the right thing to do? If you concentrate so heavily on stopping the Hornets' runner — heavily enough to actually do it — does it actually cost you?

Of course, Johnson will be the primary focus of Bryant’s stout defense too.

In fact, both defenses have posted similar numbers this season. The Hornets have allowed 92 points in eight games, the Wildcats 96.

“Our defensive line across the board is pretty salty,” stated North Little Rock coach Brad Bolding. “Our big nose (DeArius Howard) is 340 pounds. He and Colt Schaller and Bryan McCleary are three-year starters. They’re really good football players. At linebacker, Colby Miller is really good and our secondary, we’re a whole lot better there than we were last year. At least we have been up to this point. We’ll be tested this week.

“But defense is where a lot of our ability is,” he added. “They’re consistent, they play hard, they’re strong and they’re big and physical and they run well.”

Of Bryant, Bolding said, “The defense plays hard. I think it’ll be a real physical game. I know on our end of it, it will and just from what I’ve watched on film, I’m sure it will be on Bryant’s. Just a bunch of kids playing hard.”

And, both teams have been very good on special teams.

“Special teams have been real good for us,” Bolding noted.

For the Hornets, both Tanner Tolbert and Logan Garland have returned kickoffs for touchdowns.

So, if you call it a wash on defense and special teams and in the running game, the difference in the two teams may come down to is which one can throw most effectively to loosen up the defense on the running game.

To that end, it’ll be important that the rains are over and the game is being played away from the muck and mire that is Bryant’s playing surface and on the rug at North Little Rock.

Easterling, back after sitting out against Cabot after suffering a concussion a week before, is 61 of 104 with two interceptions, 10 touchdowns and 844 yards. Brandon Parish leads the receivers with 27 catches for 426 yards and seven scores.

Issac Kelley calls signals for North Little Rock and has a big play receiver in Davonta Rich.

“We’ve gotten better though it’s been a little bumpy at times on offense,” Bolding said. “But we’ve really started to jell as a team on offense lately. The offensive line’s gotten a lot better since the first of the year.

“Bryant has been real consistent with what they do,” he added. “They’ve been able to run the ball well, obviously, with Rycraw and they’ve been able to throw. I’m sure the quarterback will be ready to roll this week. He’s a good thrower.

“I think they’re offensive line has done a really good job,” Bolding continued. “I think that was one of their concerns early in the year. They’d lost quite a few but it looks like they’ve pretty much bought into what the system is and they’ve gotten better each week.”

Sound like it might be a close game?

“It’ll be a great football game,” Bolding stated. “I’m excited for both teams. It’s a great opportunity for us and Bryant. When you get into coaching, you want to get into as many of these type of games that you can. It’s big and I think it’ll be everything that everybody’s building it to be. It’s just going to be the team that makes the least amount of mistakes and the team that capitalizes on the mistakes.”



Unofficial through 8 games

BRYANT 114 94 44 20 — 272

Opponents 23 7 34 28 — 92

Team stats


First down 141 85

Rushes-yds 308-1,790 274-1,142

Passing 70-123-2 54-124-3

Passing yds 1,003 541

Fumbles-lost 11-3 15-5

Penalties yds 42-326 55-406


Rushing: Rycraw 187-1,280, J.Jones 37-219, Powell 33-81, Easterling 24-69, Freshour 2-20, Tolbert 2-42, Harris 1-11, Garland 2-54, Reed 3-4, Arnold 7-20, Winfrey 1-2, Pritchett 2-(-9), Cross 2-(-14), Davidson 4-(-18).

Passing (C-A-I-Y): Easterling 61-104-2-844 (10 TD), Davidson 9-18-0-159 (1 TD), Rycraw 0-1-0-0.

Receiving: Parish 27-426, Garland 12-189, Rycraw 9-80, Winfrey 4-112, Nichols 3-43, J.Hampton 3-26, Powell 2-34, Arnold 2-27, Butler 2-12, Harris 2-10, Reed 1-10, Garrett 1-8, Heil 1-6.

Scoring: Rycraw 96 (15 td-r, 1 td-p), Parish 47 (7 td-rec. 5 xtra-pt.), Denker 41 (5 fg {40, 22, 42, 26, 42}, 26 xtra-pt.), Jones 18 (3 td-r), Garland 24 (2 ko-ret., 1 td-r., 1 td-rec.), Bullock 6 (1 int. ret.), Butler 6 (1 td-int. ret.), Easterling 6 (1 td-r), Harris 6 (1 td-rec), Powell 6 (1 td-rec), Tolbert 6 (1 ko-ret), Winfrey 6 (1 td-rec.), J.Hampton 2 (1 conv.-pass).

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