Photos by Rick Nation
Casting aside the disappointment of suffering their first loss of the season a week ago at Greenwood, the Bryant Hornets clinched a berth in the Class 7A playoffs on Friday night with a 30-0 scalding of the Van Buren Pointers on Homecoming.
Improving to 7-1 on the season overall, 4-1 in the 7A/6A-Central Conference, the Hornets improved to 2-0 against 7A members of the league. Coupled with Conway’s 35-10 win over Little Rock Catholic, Bryant will travel to Conway on Nov. 6 with a No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs on the line.
Next Friday will be Senior Night as the Hornets host 6A conference member Siloam Springs.
Against Van Buren, the Hornets’ defense was outstanding. It was the first shutout by a Bryant D since the 2013 team blanked three consecutive opponents in midseason. They held the Pointers to a net of 128 yards of total offense, the lowest total by a Bryant foe since Nov. 1, 2013 when Lake Hamilton mustered just 115 yards.
“The defense was stellar,” stated head coach Paul Calley. “I thought the front four controlled the game early, the pressure they put on the quarterback, their ability to stop the run game, and our pass defense was solid. We gave up a couple of short ones but, for the most part, we had them blanketed. That’s encouraging.”
The Pointers rushed for only 59 yards. Quarterback Jordan Barlow was 10 of 25 passing for just 69 yards.
“The front four came ready to play,” acknowledged defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “I thought they played extremely well last week (against Greenwood). They played very, very hard up front. Cam Murray and Mario (Waits) led the charge. They’re playing extremely hard right now. When they play hard they’re very tough ballplayers to deal with.”
A lot of players got into the game as the Hornets had built the 30-0 lead by the 5:47 mark of the third quarter.
The team’s top tacklers were linebacker Hayden Knowles, defensive end Madre Dixon, tackle Walker Brown and safety Jaylen Jones with six each. Murray was in on five stops as was linebacker Devon Alpe. Dixon, Murray, Waits, Marvin Moody, Jones and Jake Hall each had tackles for losses. Brown came up with two sacks. Dixon and Kameron Guillory had one each. Pierce Finney recovered a fumble and Murray blocked one punt and came close three or four other times.
Murray refused to be blocked.
“I really have been proud of him,” Griffith said. “We kind of challenged him three or four weeks ago and I think he’s been playing extremely hard. It makes it tough when you’ve got a dude like that that can get up there and get after it.
“And the other guys, the linebacking crew did a good job, the secondary did a nice job,” he added. “Our guys had a little bitter taste in their mouth after last week and wanted to get back on the field with a chance to prove who they are. We made a step toward that tonight. We hope to make another step next week and continue to build and show what we’re about.”
Coming off the Greenwood setback, Calley was not happy with the play of his offensive line. On Tuesday, he put them through a rugged, physical practice. They performed against Van Buren, helping quarterback Gunnar Burks accumulate 152 yards rushing in just the first half.
“They played better,” Calley said. “I flipped my guards and tackles this week. I know that hampered them a little bit. They didn’t play bad. There were some things that happened quickly that they weren’t used to happening that we messed up but, for the most part, we played well.”
In fact, earlier this season, the Hornets shredded the Little Rock Catholic defense for 371 yards on the ground, which was just 16 yards shy of the school record for rushing yards in a game, set in 1963. Against Van Buren, they wound up just 4 yards short of the all-time mark of 387. Eleven different backs ran the ball.
Burks set the tone on the third play of the game, breaking a 45-yard run for a touchdown.
“We wanted to run Gunnar a little more and he broke that long one to start the game,” Calley said. “That gave us a little momentum.”
Van Buren, who’s punter Bradley Rodriguez kicked eight times (nine if you count another one that resulted in a roughing the kicker penalty), picked up a first down but then stalled out at the Bryant 44. Waits stopped Ethan Hudspeth for no gain on first down and the Pointers weren’t able to recover.
That was the first in a trade of punts by the teams. Late in the first quarter, Burks had a pass intercepted by Van Buren safety Johnathan Safonov. But the Pointers couldn’t get inside the Bryant 31 all game. They wound up punting from the Hornets’ 43 after the pick.
In turn, the Hornets drove from their own 20 to the Van Buren 4. They overcame a holding penalty along the way. An 18-yard bolt by DeAmonte Terry (12 carries, 71 yards) helped in that effort. Burks fired a 16-yard pass to Austin Kelly. At the Van Buren 25, Kelly came in motion on a neatly executed shovel pass, picked up 12 yards to the 13.
On a third-and-7 at the 10, Burks was stopped just short of the first down and, on fourth-and-1 at the 4, Hayden Ray came on and drilled a 21-yard field goal to make it 10-0 with 7:03 left in the half.
Van Buren was moving the ball on the subsequent series but, on a third-and-1 at their own 46, the Pointers were denied when Moody and Jones dropped back-up quarterback Caleb Salisbury for a 6-yard loss, forcing another punt.
Murray had been getting close to blocking a kick. Rodriguez, using a rugby punting style, had managed to get them through. But this time, Murray got to up-back Kameron Collins. The 6-3, 280-pound d-lineman hit the 5-8, 175-pound blocker Collins and knocked him into the punter. The kick went just 11 yards and the Hornets gained possession at their own 49 with 5:05 left in the half.
Burks immediately sliced and diced his way for 20 yards then 16 more. A holding penalty negated most of his 15-yard touchdown run but, moments later after a 5-yard pass completion to Landon Smith, Terry barged in from the 3. Ray kicked it to 17-0 with 2:54 left to play.
Buoyed by a 60-yard kickoff return by Hudspeth, the Pointers started their subsequent possession at the Bryant 37.
“I was disappointed in the kickoff coverage,” Calley asserted. “We’ve been great at kickoff coverage the last six weeks but we let them pop out of there. I haven’t spent as much time on it in practice because it’s just about discipline. We’re evidently not the most disciplined team in the world.”
Yet, a penalty pushed Van Buren back. Senior quarterback Jordan Barlow kept for 9 yards to the 33. Hudspeth was stuffed on a 2-yard run and, after a timeout with :58.1 showing, the Pointers went for it on fourth down. Barlow’s pass, however, was swatted down right out of his hand by Murray.
Bryant took over on downs with :55 left. Terry ran for 7 yards then Smith grabbed a 15-yard pass. After a timeout with :17.6 on the clock, Burks, off a slight roll to the right, saw Aaron Orender behind a pair of defenders deep. He laid the ball in there perfectly and, with :07.4 left in the half, Bryant had tacked on a score that made it 24-0.
“That was big for momentum,” Calley commented. “It was a great throw and Orender just ran under it and made a great catch. He didn’t basket catch it. He went up and caught the ball and ran it in.”
To start the second half, the Pointers’ Walter Green returned out to the 41. Barlow hit Miles Malone for 9 yards then Hudspeth pushed for a first down on a 5-yard run. But the next three plays, the Hornets broke up passes. Murray tipped the first attempt then pressured Barlow into a bad throw on the second one.
The third-down toss appeared to be caught by Malone only to have cornerback Quinton Royal drill him, knocking the ball free. The Pointers were forced to punt yet again.
“Quinton came over several weeks back, moved over from offense,” Griffith noted. “We’d seen in 7-on-7 and one-on-one pass drills, when we used him defensively he was a very good cover man. He has come on to be not only just a cover guy in man coverage but he’s proved himself a hitter. He’s had a couple, three hits the last few weeks that were very, very forceful. We’re very proud of how physical he’s stepped up and played.”
This time Rodriguez punted the Hornets back to their own 3. Bryant proceeded to drive 97 yards in 12 plays to put a bow on their offensive onslaught. Terry contributed a pair of 8-yard runs and sophomore Brandon Murray had one. Burks completed a pair of short passes, one to Smith and the other to Jordan Gentry.
Chace Henson, running the fly sweep, broke a 25-yard run and, with a face mask penalty tacked on, the Hornets were at the Pointers’ 12.
That’s when Burks went back to the air and threw a pass to tight end Dagin Carden, who made his first varsity reception for his first varsity touchdown.
A high snap sabotaged the extra point try but the final score was on the board.
On the ensuing kickoff, Green touched the ball right before it went out of bounds at the 3. The Pointers took over there and went three-and-out. Rodriguez’ short punt was fielded by Kelly at the Van Buren 37. He returned it to the 21.
With Jakalon Pittman and Brandon Murray running the ball, the Hornets reached the 2 only to stall there. They turned it over on downs at the 3.
With more reserves working into the lineup, the Bryant defense continued to stymie the Pointers. On a third down at the 10, Jake Hall dropped Hudspeth for a loss and another punt was in the offing. This time, Waits came close to blocking it but, in the process, he tagged Rodriguez’ foot. The punter made a well-rehearsed fall to the ground and the penalty flag came out for roughing the kicker.
“It was pretty picky but, if it’s a close ballgame and we put ourselves in that situation, it may get us beat,” noted Calley.
Though the Pointers were given a fresh set of downs, they lost possession moments later on their lone turnover of the game. Barlow passed to Zach Wornkey but the ball was jarred loose and Finney pounced on it.
The Hornets drove to the 11 but, on a second-and-6, there was some confusion. Junior quarterback Beaux Bonvillain tried to throw a swing pass but the ball got away. Ruled a lateral, the ball was free for the taking but the Pointers were unable to get to it before it rolled out of bounds at the 23.
A play later, Ray came on to attempt a 39-yard field goal but it was blocked by Van Buren’s Josh Aden. He returned it to the 44 but a personal foul penalty against the Pointers moved them back.
“Second half, we got down inside the 5 twice and came away with nothing,” Calley emphasized. “With all the good things that happened, that is disappointing. You’d like to be able to finish the game, stick it in there. Like I told them before the game, ‘Let’s go do what we’re supposed to do. Let’s play like we’re supposed to play and let’s finish them off.’ We’re just not there yet.”
The Hornets got inside the 5 again after forcing another punt thanks to a sack by Brown then another as Brown combined with Kameron Guillory.
Rodriguez punted the Hornets back to their own 3 but they drove to the Van Buren 2, eating up nearly six minutes of the time left in the game. The drive was highlighted by Drew Alpe’s 16-yard burst that gave the Hornets some room to maneuver. Pittman broke a 30-yarder on a speed sweep. Aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Van Buren bench, the Hornets reached the 18 on a 14-yard burst by Kris King.
Henson was caught for a loss but a “horse-collar” tackle cost the Pointers, moving the ball to the 11. Jeremiah Long carried to the 6 and, a play later, King got to the 2, setting up a fourth-and-1. Bonvillain lost a couple of yards on fourth down but there was a mix-up and the Hornets got a fifth down. Henson, however, was tackled at the 2 and, with 2:40 left in the game, Van Buren took over.
They were only able to get to the 19 before punting one last time. Guillory knocked down a pass during the series.
“I’m happy with the win but I’m not pleased,” Calley asserted. “If I was pleased, I wouldn’t be a very good coach. We cannot be satisfied. There’s still work to do if you want to be a champion. We’re 7-1 but I don’t think we’ve played up to our capability yet.”