Photos by Rick Nation
CONWAY — Bryant senior cornerback Quinton Royal was looking for a flag when he got up off the ground. He had had inside position covering Conway’s Marquis Pleasant on a long throw up the right hash. But Pleasant went and got the ball. And, though it appeared he climbed up Royal’s back, reached over the top of him and knocked him down, there was no flag for offensive pass interference and Pleasant wound up in the end zone with a 76-yard touchdown at the 7:43 mark of the third quarter.
Bryant’s lead, which was 17-3, didn’t seem so commanding anymore at 17-10.
But Quinton Royal and the Hornets got the last word in their regular-season finale against the rival Wampus Cats. On the last play of the game, with Conway at the Bryant 11, Royal, who started the season as a wide receiver, came up with an interception — his third of the game — in the end zone to preserve the victory.
The Hornets, improving to 9-1 this season, thus garnered the No. 1 seed to the Class 7A playoffs from the Central Conference and the first-round bye that comes with it. They’ll play on Friday, Nov. 20, in the State quarterfinals at home against the winner of the first-round game between West Memphis and Fayetteville.
Royal’s picks weren’t the only highlights for the Bryant defense, which limited Conway to just 64 yards of offense in the first half, only 10 yards rushing. Though Smith got hot through the air late in the game to give the Wampus Cats a chance, they wound up netting just 21 yards on the ground on 21 attempts.
Royal broke up three other passes. Safety Jaylen Jones led the Hornets with eight tackles. Devon Alpe was in on seven including one for a loss. Hayden Knowles finished with six stops and Cameron Murray had four including one for a loss. Peyton Robertson dropped Conway ballcarriers twice for losses. Marvin Moody also had a TFL and Cameron Vail broke up a pass.
Offensively, DeAmonte Terry rang up 131 yards rushing. Quarterback Gunnar Burks rushed for 50 yards but also completed 10 of 14 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
Royal’s first interception set up Bryant’s initial TD. A third-down conversion on a throw from Burks to Orender got the Hornets out to their own 45. On the next play, Kelly slipped out of the H-back position and down the seam. He was wide open as Burks quickly tossed him the football. The result was a 55-yard touchdown.
Hayden Ray added the extra point.
Conway, in turn, went three and out. A short punt gave the ball back to the Hornets at their own 42. Terry broke loose for 23 yards to get them into Wampus Cat territory. After his 11-yard run, Burks threw to Orender for 12 to the 12.
But a procedure penalty pushed them back and kind of broke the rhythm. The Hornets got to the 3 and faced a fourth down.
Before the game, head coach Paul Calley said he felt it would take 24 or 28 points to beat the Cats so, with a chance to go up 14-0, the coach had defensive linemen Mario Waits and Murray along with linebacker Hayden Knowles join the offense, bulking up the left side of alignment. Knowles and Waits followed Murray and big tackles Brycen Waddle and Cole Fritschen as Burks aimed to follow them into the end zone. But the timing was a little off. Burks didn’t get close enough behind those guys to take advantage. Conway defenders poured though in their wake and Burks was stopped short of the first down at the 1 as well as the end zone.
Conway worked the ball out to its 39 but wound up punting it back to the Hornets who had a drive going only to have it stall out at the Conway 43.
The Wampus Cats benefited from a short punt and a pass interference penalty to get to the 50. But, on second down there, Royal made his second interception.
And, again this time, the Hornets took advantage. Sparked by Terry’s 42-yard run, the Hornets got to the 5. On third-and-goal, Burks just missed connecting with tight end Jaret Jacobs for a touchdown. So Ray came on and drilled a 22-yard field goal that made it 10-0, which held up until the fourth quarter.
Aided by another pass interference penalty (on a ball that looked uncatchable), Conway put together a drive that started late in the third period. A diving catch of a Smith pass by Brayden Leach reached the 15. It was the first time in the game that the Cats had penetrated the Bryant 30.
They reached the 5 but a first-down snap sailed beyond the reach of Smith. He was able to cover the loose ball but the result was loss of 10. That was more than the Wampus Cats could overcome. On fourth-and-goal at the 10, Christian Underwood came on to boot a 27-yard field goal. With 11:43 left in the game, Conway had broken up the shutout.
The Hornets responded with a scoring drive that picked up a touchdown. Aided by a roughing the passer penalty, they reached the Conway 28. Burks, however, was dropped for a loss on first down there. On the next play, Orender got free on a post route. Burks, under pressure, fired a perfect pass. Orender made the catch in stride and stepped into the end zone.
Ray made it 17-3 with the extra point.
And it looked like the Hornets’ defense might get the ball back in short order. Moved back to their own 10 due to a blocking penalty on the kickoff return, the Cats faced a third-and-10. But Smith completed a 14-yard pass to Leach and, on the next snap, threw deep down the right side where Royal was covering Pleasant and Conway scored.
On the responding series, the Hornets started eating up clock by moving the ball on the ground. They drove from the 19 to the 35 and, on a first-down play, Burks connected with Kelly for an 18-yard gain. But a holding penalty negated the play. Bryant was unable to overcome that and wound up punting.
With 3:41 left, Conway had a chance at the comeback but, on first down, Smith was under duress from the Hornets’ rush and wound up being penalized for intentional grounding as he threw the ball away. From the spot of the foul, the 5-yard penalty was marked off but it was, essentially, a 22-yard penalty with a loss of down.
Two plays later, the Cats were punting it back to the Hornets.
Given another shot to run out the clock, the Hornets whittled it down to 1:21 but had to punt. That provided Conway’s last-ditch effort. Smith hit four passes and contributed a 14-yard scramble – the longest run from scrimmage in the game for the Cats — as they drove to the Bryant 11.
With no timeouts left, Smith spiked the ball to stop the clock with :05.8 showing on the scoreboard.
Calley called a timeout to make sure his defense was set up the way he wanted with the last play of the game pending. It also gave a rest to his defensive line, which had been chasing Smith around all along the way against the no-huddle offense.
And it paid off, Smith was flushed out of the pocket, scrambling to his left to avoid the sack. But it left him throwing clear across the field when he thought he found an open receiver. Royal broke on the ball and intercepted as time ran out and the Hornets celebrated.