Photos by Rick Nation
Playing a non-conference conference game in week 9 of the 10-week regular season with bigger games (conference conference games, if you will) seven days before and seven days hence is not necessarily a formula for inspiration. The Class 6A Siloam Springs Panthers made the four-hour-plus bus ride to Bryant on Friday night to play the Class 7A Hornets as members of the 7A/6A-Central Conference in a game that had no bearing on their post-season hopes. Such is the oddity of the mixed conferences (which will be done away with next year).
Both teams have bigger things ahead.
Next Friday, the Hornets will be playing at Conway with a top seed in the 7A playoffs and a first-round bye on the line, while the Panthers will have to win at home over Russellville to just qualify for the 6A playoffs and avoid the end of their season.
Granted, the Hornets still have an outside chance at a share of the conference championship — they’ll need a win over Conway and an upset of unbeaten Greenwood by Alma — and it was Senior Night.
And therein lies the real meaning behind the contest. For the seniors (on both teams), their opportunities to play high school football under the lights on Friday nights are dwindling down to a precious few. Most will not play on Saturdays. Every game, every quarter, every play, every chance to pull on those pads, the uniform, the helmet is to be relished.
And things happened on Friday night against Siloam Springs — and every Friday night — that the players, the coaches, the fans will never forget. Things like BHS senior Chace Henson’s 89-yard touchdown run or senior cornerback Quinton Royal’s interception or senior linebacker Greg Williams’ sack of Siloam Springs quarterback Jordan Norberg, senior Aaron Orender’s 18-yard touchdown run, senior quarterback Gunnar Burks’ touchdown pass and on and on.
They’ll remember it was a win even if they don’t remember the score was 33-14. They’ll remember charging down to the bleachers beyond the south end zone with their classmates to stand in front of the band and sing the alma mater. They’ll remember lingering on the field with family and friends long after the game.
As for the game itself, it wasn’t particularly an intense battle but the Hornets were efficient enough on offense to rush for 341 yards including 132 by junior DeAmonte Terry. And add 106 yard passing with Burks completing 11 of his 15 attempts.
They were exceptional enough on defense to hold the Panthers to just 42 yards of total offense in the first half and a lot of guys got to play.
On special teams, the Hornets were good enough that junior Hayden Ray booted four field goals to give him 11 on the season. And they executed a fake punt to get a first down and had no mistakes in the return game with Austin Kelly picked up 23 return yards in the three punts he was able to field and return.
“We are the No. 1 ugly-win team in the state of Arkansas,” declared Hornets head coach Paul Calley. “We are at the top of the rankings.
“We had favorable field position numerous times in the first half and had to settle,” he noted. “We kicked two field goals and we turned it over on downs one time.”
But a win is a win is a win as the Hornets improved to 8-1 on the season and the seniors matched the classes of 2010 and 2011 for most wins over their three years with 25 and chances to eclipse the mark.
“We were stellar on defense except for the opening drive of the second half,” Calley said, referencing the Panthers 80-yard march to start the third quarter, cutting into the 16-0 Bryant lead. “They had a couple of things that they had us on.”
And the Hornets adjusted and Siloam Springs was unable to score again until very late in the game when Calley and his staff were trying to get as many of their reserves, particularly the seniors, into the game. I thought our secondary looks like it should. Our corners are leaning into receivers and running with them. We’re where we’re supposed to be. They’ve come a long way and, to me, just in the last couple of weeks from Greenwood on.”
Hayden Knowles and Madre Dixon led the Hornets with six tackles each including one apiece for lost yardage. Mario Waits was in on five stops before coming out with leg cramps. Devon Alpe was in on five tackles including one for a loss. He also broke up a pass. Jaelyn Jones made five stops.
Cameron Murray, Marvin Moody, Cameron Vail and Michael Jones had tackles for losses. Vail broke up a pair of passes. Moody, Finney and Najee Hunt each broke one up.
“Our kicking game was more solid,” the coach reflected. “We had a couple of good kickoff returns. We executed a fake punt. We ran back punts decent. We fielded them when we could.
“That’s the thing, we’ve got to be smart back there and when we can field them clean, catch them and go,” he explained, recalling that the Hornets had struggled with particularly punt returns earlier in the year. “If you can’t field them clean, get away from them. Sometimes they’re going to take a bad roll but I’d rather do that than lose possession.”
Hunt opened the game with a strong kickoff return. The Hornets drove from their own 45 to the Siloam 21 where the drive stalled and Ray booted his first 3-pointer from 38 yards out.
“They (the Panthers defenders) were taking their front four and they were cutting our offensive linemen so we weren’t getting any push,” Calley said. “We could not get a crease up there. And the (Siloam Springs) guys that were on the ground, when they went down, we’d pass them up and they’d pop up and make a tackle.
Still, he added, “There were a couple of times when he was just a hair away from breaking a long run.”
Siloam’s best drive of the first half was their first. Aided by a pass interference penalty and 16-yard runs by Norberg and Marquann Sorrells, they reached the Bryant 33. But a pair of procedure penalties took the starch out of the drive. Two plays later, with Dixon and Murray pressuring Norberg, Royal came up with his interception, returning it from the 27 to the Bryant 47.
The only time the Hornets lined up to punt came on the subsequent series. From the Siloam 47, Kelly set up to punt only to take the snap and run for 29 yards and a first down. On the next snap, Orender took a handoff on the fly sweep and dashed into the end zone from 18 yards out.
Burks, who accounted for 14 points in the game, added the point-after and it was 10-0.
Siloam went three-and-out and Kelly returned punter Jackson Noll’s punt 10 yards. On the first play from the 44, Terry slashed 42 yards to the Panthers’ 14.
Terry, who came into the game, second to Siloam Springs’ Ricky Hughes as the leading rusher in the conference, unofficially took over the lead with 795 yards on the season to 794 for Hughes, who got most of his 73 yards late in the game.
Again, however, the Hornets stalled after reaching the 6. Facing a fourth-and-2, Burks tried to keep it for the first down but the Panthers got penetration and dropped him at the 7.
Siloam went three-and-out again and, with the help of a 13-yard return of a short punt by Kelly, the Hornets set up shop on offense just 27 yards from another touchdown. A procedure penalty put them behind the chains a bit though they reached the 7, Ray came on to drill a 25-yard field goal to make it 13-0.
After the next Panthers’ punt, the Hornets’ offense started at the Siloam 44. Terry, making a tremendous cut off the block of Demaja Price, appeared to be on his way to a touchdown but when he went to switch the ball from his inside hand to the outside arm — a move that, ironically, is done in order to protect the ball — it came loose and Siloam recovered.
But, on first down, Moody and Vail combined to drop Coby Roach for a loss. Despite a 15-yard penalty that got the Panthers to the Bryant 48, they were soon kicking it back. Michael Jones and Devon Alpe had dropped Hughes for a loss then Royal broke up a pass. Alpe and Moody prevented a completion on a third-down blitz.
With Burks completing passes to Kelly and Smith then Terry dashing 16 yards, the Hornets drove to the 23. Again, Ray entered after the drive bogged down and hit his longest field goal of the year from 41 yards out to make it 16-0.
To start the second half, Norberg completed four passes with a roughing the pass penalty thrown in and the Panthers drove for a touchdown with the quarterback getting into the end zone from the 2.
In turn, Burks completed four consecutive passes including a 16-yard strike to Orender to convert and third down. With a personal foul tacked on, Bryant reached the 11 but was once again denied the end zone. Ray was money on the field goal, however, this time for 29 yards away.
When Siloam got nothing on its next series, a short punt game Bryant possession at the Panthers’ 42. This time, they got the 6 but it took a third-down pass from Burks to Kelly from the 5 to finish it off, making it 26-7 just seconds into the fourth quarter.
After another long punt by Noll, the Hornets had possession at their own 11. They ran the speed sweep again, this time to Henson, who broke his 89-yard sprint to the other end, making it 33-7 with 9:49 left.
With the Bryant coaches filtering in reserves, the Panthers drove to the Bryant 5 only to have procedure penalties on consecutive plays move them back to the 15. From there, four incomplete passes including break-ups by Hunt, Moody and Vail, gave Bryant the ball back at its 15.
Using clock, the Hornets drove to the Siloam 46 before a fumble cost them possession. The Panthers recovered and drove for their second score using up all but the final :37.1.