In a season in which they’ve already matched rare milestones or established new ones in the program’s history, the 2015 Bryant Hornets will have an opportunity to add to the list once they get back to action on Friday, Nov. 20. That’s when they’ll host either the Fayetteville Bulldogs or the West Memphis Blue Devils in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs.
Actually, all they need to do — and it’s obviously easier said than done — is win.
For one thing, it would be the first time a Bryant team has prevailed against either the Bulldogs or the Devils. It would also be the first time a Bryant team has advanced beyond the quarterfinals in the playoffs. And they’d become just the third football team (2004, 1999) in school history to reach double digits in victories.
Don’t put it past them, whatever the odds. Again and again, they’ve risen to the occasion this season despite all kinds of adversity.
Bryant was awarded a first round bye with a 17-10 win at Conway last Friday, finishing unbeaten against the three other 7A teams in the 7A/6A-Central Conference. At 9-1, their lone loss of the season came against a still unbeaten Greenwood team.
Actually, “awarded” may not be the proper description. Over the last seven years in which there have been byes in the 7A division, seven times bye teams have been knocked off by lower-seeded opponents that had played on the first weekend including twice in 2010. It happened to the Hornets in 2013 when they lost to North Little Rock in the second round (though the Charging Wildcats had to later forfeit the game).
Last year, Conway got ousted in the second round by Fayetteville, while the Hornets opened with a win over Springdale Har-Ber then had eventual champion Bentonville down going into the fourth quarter before the Tigers surged to a 17-7 victory.
Bentonville coach Barry Lunney Sr., while giving the Hornets their full due following the game, admitted that the bye had not been helpful.
True, the bye allows a team to heel, which is no small thing. But, while Bryant’s bumps and bruises will mend, the key players the Hornets would like to have back still won’t be available. Running backs Savonte Turner and Cameron Coleman, linebacker Devin Howard and safety Phillip Isom-Green, among others, each required surgery and, even with the extra week, remain unavailable.
Beyond that, the bye has a tendency to take the edge off a team’s momentum and disrupt its rhythm and timing.
Asked how he intends to keep his team sharp, Bryant head coach Paul Calley said, “Go back and work on fundamental stuff.”
He admitted, however, that the bye creates a challenge for his coaching staff and the players.
“You don’t want to go into a second-round playoff game after having a week off when you’ve played an average Siloam Springs team that has a .500 record and you’ve played a Conway team that’s not quite what they’ve been. They have a .500 record,” he said, referencing the last two Hornets’ games. “Then if you’ve got to go play the (pre-season) favorite to win the State championship (Fayetteville) . . .
“Looking back at last year, week 10 we played an undefeated Conway team, which showed us some things we needed to do differently, especially on offense,” he recounted. “And we were able to do it. Har-Ber, I thought, was one of the better teams we played all year and they were 3-7. That helped us get ready for Bentonville. And Bentonville, I felt like, played poorly because their timing was off. They’d lost their momentum.”
If you can get past that first game after the bye, however, things can kick in. Consider that, after the Tigers eked out the win over the Hornets, they buried a highly-regarded North Little Rock team 42-10 then edged Fayetteville for the championship after the Bulldogs had roughed up Fort Smith Southside 56-14.
(Yes, Bryant is just two victories away from playing for a State championship.)
Though Fayetteville is a 3 seed from the 7A-West, head coach Daryl Patton said, before the season, this could be his best Bulldog team ever. They lost to Har-Ber (47-43) and Bentonville (37-26) during the regular season. They are a big favorite to get past West Memphis.
“They always lose to Har-Ber and Bentonville in the regular season then they always come back and beat them (in the playoffs),” noted Calley, who worked as an assistant to Patton at Bryant and developed a close friendship with him, which they’ve maintained since Patton’s move to Fayetteville in 2003. “In ’06, they beat us here and they went on to the semi’s. In ’07, they beat us here and they won (the State title).”
Asked about the win over rival Conway in the regular-season finale, Calley said, “The outcome I was happy with, of course, but some of the things in between were disappointing. The penalties, the penalties, the penalties — some warranted, some not — it’s just so frustrating.”
The Hornets were flagged eight times for 88 yards. No doubt, eliminating the “warranted” penalties is part of the return to fundamentals this week; a week that, oddly enough, will include practice but no game.
Here are the final regular-season statistics for the 2015 Hornets: