Photos by Rick Nation
Sure, they ended up in the same place as last year, one win away from playing for a State championship. And, yes, they got thumped pretty bad on the road in the semifinals. But, short of that, the 2017 Bryant Hornets did some things their predecessors on the 2016 did not.
They became just the third team in the history of the program to win 10 games or more. They recorded not one but two wins over a team in Fayetteville that no other Bryant team had defeated. They beat Fort Smith Northside for the first time.
And they did it with a target on their chests. In 2016, the Hornets surprised most everybody with their 6-2 run after a 2-2 start. This season, everyone expected them to excel. And they won nine of 10 regular-season games despite adversity. How few teams excel when they lose their starting quarterback at mid-season? How many times has a team had two passers throw for more than 1,000 yards in a season?
In 2016, the Hornets were decided underdogs going into their last game and, as disappointing as it was, their loss to North Little Rock in the semifinals was no surprise.
In 2017, the Hornets were actually slight favorites going into their last game and, as disappointing as it was, their 44-14 loss at Bentonville was a bit of a shock.
“It’s disappointing,” acknowledged Hornets’ second-year head coach Buck James. “We didn’t play well.
“A lot of that falls on me and our coaches,” he asserted. “Our kids do what we ask them to do and they do the things that we train them on and they did it all year. Some things hurt us in the ballgame and that just goes down to X’s and O’s.”
Asked how much it impacted the team that leading tackler Jakob Neel was unable to play with a back injury, James said, “He’s been hurt off and on the last few weeks but it came to a head the week of the Fayetteville game. He didn’t play a lot in that game. It’s just part of football.
“He’s a big factor,” he acknowledged. “It changed a lot of things. You’re talking about a 15-to-20-tackles-a-game guy. He was a big missing part.
“But that’s going to happen this time of year. We’ve got to be able to overcome that. That’s part of the game. We hate we lost him but it should be something that we can make up like we did at the quarterback position. We’ve got to have guys that continue to improve and learn multiple positions if need be. But the biggest thing is to grow and get bigger and stronger so you can fill in and play in a game of that magnitude.”
He credited the Tigers.
“My hat’s off to them,” James said. “They did a good job of doing what they do. We just didn’t. Our kids got their head down and we weren’t able to overcome it. But that’s what happens when you come across a good football team that’s very well coached, that’s able to execute and that has a game plan. That’s what you get into when you get to the second, third week of the playoffs and the State championship game.
“We’re still in a building process,” the coach said. “We’re still trying to learn our offense and our defense every day. It’s like I told the kids on Monday in our meeting, ‘Once we’ve been through a cycle of this — I mean those (Bentonville) kids have been doing this since Barry Lunney was there. It hadn’t changed a whole lot. We’re trying to get where they’re at. They’ve won five State championships and they’ve probably played for five more.”
Teams like Bentonville start every year expecting to practice on Thanksgiving Day, to play on Black Friday. They relish the notion.
That’s all new to Bryant where, with a chance to win a State championship for the very first time on the line, there were actually people complaining about Thanksgiving Day practice.
When asked about that, James would only say, “I think it’s a factor but I think it’s who we play that’s even a bigger factor. We played two really good football teams (in the playoffs). We played Fayetteville High School. They have something to do with it too. Then we played Bentonville High School. They have something to do with it too. They have a good program. We really played probably the two best football programs in the history of 7A football over the last 10 or 15 years.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” he added, “but we’ve got to be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t go and fix what we’re not doing right.
“We competed well in a very good conference. The playoff teams that we played are historic powers in 7A football. I venture to say both of them out-spend us over 100 to 1. That makes a difference with facilities and everything. Bryant, as a school district, is growing really fast and facility-wise, we’re behind. That’s plays into it. But we’re still playing good football and we’re going to continue to keep playing good football. We’re trying to get there and it don’t happen overnight. We want to do it the right way. We want to build it the right way and we want our program to be something that’s sustainable.”
James acknowledged the strides that were made this year.
“We’re definitely ahead of where we were at this time last year,” he asserted. “There’s no doubt in my mind. We’ve got to quit letting it get to the point to where it gets to before we start playing.”
The Hornets trailed Fayetteville 20-0 at the half then Bentonville 37-7 at the intermission.
“I think that comes from experience, confidence in your program, coaches and you’re partner besides you,” James explained. “I think all that has something to do with it. Experience playing — I think we played a lot of first-year guys this year whether they were sophomores, juniors or seniors, it was the first time they played. We need guys that come through the program and go through the process of special teams, JV ball, part-time player to full-time player; develop kids through the program that know the X’s and O’s and everything to the nth degree so they can adjust and process things faster. I think that’s just being in the program and being a program kid.
“That’s what it starts with,” he continued. “I think we’ve got to continue to get our kids stronger. Our junior highs are doing a great job and we’ve already come a long way. We spend a lot of time on strength and conditioning, trying to get guys ready to play when we could be working on football, football techniques and movements. So we’ve got to work harder on getting stronger at a younger age to where we can just keep building on that instead of trying to build it all so much like we did in one year.
“And that’s coming. Our sophomores last year were stronger than any group we’ve had here. That’s a process too. And having our weight room available with our seventh through ninth graders is vital.
“And our kids have got to understand, at an earlier age, that physically being strong and fast is as important as knowing what to do and how to do it,” the coach added. “That’s part of a process as well.
“A lot of times, things don’t happen at the speed that we want it to,” he related. “I tell kids all the time, if they knew they were going to be as good as they were going to be when they were seniors, you’d have worked a lot harder as a seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th grader. That’s got to come into play. If you start working at it as a seventh, eighth and ninth grader and develop your body and your mind where you get to the point to where, when you get in high school, you have a chance to win State championships and compete for State championships. That’s what we want our kids to understand.”
James reflected on the contributions of the senior class that wound up being involved in a school-record 28 wins over their three seasons.
“This senior class is special in many ways,” he said. “They were sophomores when I got here and I asked them to do some things they weren’t used to doing. And what they were doing was working, don’t get me wrong. I think they had a great program here and we’re just trying to build off of it. We asked them to change things, change the way they did things and their mindset on things.
“They became, arguably, the best group of seniors that have come through Bryant in the history of the program,” the coach added. “My hat’s off to them. I think they did it the right way. They worked extremely hard. They had to give a lot and I’m proud of each and every one of them. We had a lot that didn’t play a whole lot but they made contributions in many different ways. A very, very mature group of young men who understood the process and what it took to be a great teammate. For that, I’m forever grateful that they gave our team a chance to be very successful.”
The starting offense for the Hornets will lose six starters, offensive linemen Preston Kyzer, Joseph Wyllia and Zak Kemp plus three wide receivers in Luke Curtis, Brandon Murray and Ja’Kalon Pittman. On defense, defensive linemen Johnny Wallace, Conner Davis and Bryce Thomas, linebackers Antonio Todd, Nick Smith and Brooks Ellis, swingmen in Mike Jones and Allen Coleman along with safeties Cameron Vail, Rondale Messer, James Politte and corner Antonio Rice.
Returning will be quarterbacks Ren Hefley and Jake Meaders, 1,500-yard rusher Latavion Scott, wide receivers Randy Thomas and Josh Robinson and linemen Blaise Smith, Clay McElyea, Logan Burton and Josh Stevens. Defensively, linemen Kajuan Robinson, Nate Wallace, Austin Bailey and Catrell Wallace, linebackers Neel and Jake Wright and corner Andrew Hayes.
Plus there are others returning that spot played along with a group of incoming sophomores who just finished a 10-0 season.
“We’ve got a good group coming back,” James allowed. “We’ve still got some holes to fill but we’ve got a good nucleus coming back.
“We’ve got to have guys that step up and guys who get better and we’ve got to have guys that can do more than they thought they could do and be stronger than they thought they could be and be the player that we think they can be,” he said. “You know, I think a lot of times, we think they can be better than they even give themselves credit for.
“I’m excited about the future,” the coach declared. “When I look all the way down to seventh grade, I think we’ve got things rolling in the right direction. We’re getting stronger. We’re getting faster. We’re getting better at throwing and catching the football and we’re getting to where we understand our terminology and what’s expected.
“In the same sense, we’ve got to understand that this is fragile and everybody else is working at it as well,” he warned. “They’re going to do everything they can to try to get to the level that we’re at or we’re trying to reach. It’s always going to be competitive. This is going to be a competitive league and you can still, in this league, have a very good football team and not be on the top of the leaderboard. Our guys have got to understand that hard work does pay off and being able to execute and understand our offenses and defenses and be good in the kicking game is a vital part of being able to compete at the 7A level.”
In summary, James said, “I knew we had a real good football team the whole year. We played really good offensively up until the Central game and then Ren got hurt then we brought in a back-up quarterback, a sophomore. We struggled a little bit to get him in his niche but he did everything in his power to win football games and was able to do that, which speaks volumes for the young man and the football team.
“We started getting rolling again then we change quarterbacks and changed things again. Offensively, we were sort of really up there and we started to mellow out. Then we came up again then we sort of mellowed out again. And you’ve got to give the teams we played a little bit of credit on that too. I think, offensively, we’re just breaking the ground on where we can get to.
“Defensively, we didn’t play very good the first week then we continued to get better the whole year then we played very poorly on the last game,” he continued. “That’s just part of dealing with 16-to-18-year-old kids. I don’t think any of them didn’t play hard, they just didn’t play well. But you can talk to every team that played their last game that probably happened, especially in the playoffs.
“I think we really have a chance to grow and get better and build this thing into something special,” the coach concluded. “We’ve still got some ground to gain on some teams in this state. It’s got to be important to everybody for us to get there. A lot of it’s a lot of countless hours with nobody watching that prepares you for that.”