Just keep playing: Hornets gain 2 seed, bye with scintillating comeback win at Conway

Bryant head coach Buck James celebrates with his players after a wild 42-31 comeback win over the rival Conway Wampus Cats Friday night. (Photo by Rick Nation)

For more photos of this event by Rick Nation, go here

CONWAY — Bryant Hornets head coach Buck James was not pleased with his team at halftime of their showdown with the rival Conway Wampus Cats. On Senior Night, with high stakes on the line regarding the Class 7A playoffs just a week away, the Hornets got knocked back on their heels, falling behind 21-7 before the first quarter was over.

It looked like it could get ugly.

Austin Bailey sacks Conway quarterback Andrew Hreha (15) to end the Wampus Cats’ hope for their own rally. (Photo by Rick Nation)

The Hornets rallied but still trailed 24-14 at the half and it looked like their hopes for a No. 2 seed from the 7A-Central Conference and a first-round bye for the playoffs were evaporating.

“I told them that next week will be a JV game, that our seniors would be done if they didn’t go out there and play with some heart and some passion,” James related about his halftime talk. “You know, I don’t think they thought I was kidding.

“I believe in these guys,” he asserted, “but they’ve got to believe in themselves. We’re too good a football team, got too good a football players not to go out there and play with some emotion and passion and intensity and discipline.

“For the life of me, I can’t understand how they work as hard as they work, spend the time they do on it, and not go play like they’re capable of playing,” the coach stated. “I told them, ‘I’m not a very smart guy. My brain can’t comprehend that.’ I mean, you’re only guaranteed 10 (games), now we’re only guaranteed one, how can you not go out there and play at the level that you’re capable of playing? For yourself, for your teammates, your family, your school, your community. Not to go out there and play our best and give our best, there’s no excuse for that.

“I told them we were two touchdowns better than (Conway) even with the lead they had,” James related. “I said I thought we’d beat them by two touchdowns but we’ve got to go play football.”

His team responded by roaring to a 42-31 victory, outscoring the Cats 28-7 in the second half. Still, they never held a lead until Cameron Vail’s 1-yard burst into the end zone with 2:32 left in the game.

In fact, the Hornets trailed 31-21 with 9:02 left in the game, then came roaring back for three touchdowns in the final 7:50.

Jake Leaders threw for 270 yards and three touchdowns. (Photo by Rick Nation)

“And that’s who we are,” remarked James, whose 150th win as a head coach proved to be one to remember. “It’s got to give us some confidence.”

“I don’t think we believed last week (in a home loss to North Little Rock) like we believed this week,” stated Bryant offensive coordinator Kirk Bock. “Buck got in their kitchen a little bit at halftime and I think it sparked them up. Once we started going offensively — whenever we play well offensively — our defense plays great.”

“We got to halftime and we didn’t make many adjustments,” defensive coordinator Darrell Burnett said. “We rotated some guys, got Mike Jones in there on some passing downs and we blitzed more on first down to try to get (Conway) behind the sticks. Anytime we played man, we did good. They got a few big plays on the zone — I shouldn’t even call zone plays, we run so much man.

“We just tried to challenge those guys and they stepped up,” he added. “We had some guys that really, really stepped up. And they showed character and they fought for one another.”

“I’m proud of my players and I’m proud of my coaches,” James insisted.

So the Hornets get next week off before opening the playoffs on Friday, Nov. 17, at home against the winner of the Fayetteville-Fort Smith Southside contest this Friday. It’s be a rematch for the Hornets either way.

The Hornets were led by junior running back LaTavion Scott who picked up 139 yards on 20 carries. Sophomore quarterback Jake Meaders started the game 4 of 11 passing for 59 yards in the first half but wound up going 20 for 33 for 270 yards and three touchdowns, all caught by Brandon Murray.

Meanwhile, Conway’s Michael George rushed 25 times for 199 yards and three TDs. His third score came with 9:09 left to play and, after the Hornets had cut the lead to 3, pushed the margin back to 10.

Ja’Kalon Pittman (8) twists around Conway safety Tez Miller to haul in a pass. (Photo by Rick Nation)

But that was the last time George would play. To start that drive, he injured his ankle on an 18-yard dash. He was sidelined until returning for the touchdown run.

Meaders, who wound up completing 13 of his last 16 passes, laced a throw to Luke Curtis starting the last push by the Hornets. Scott picked up a first down with a determined 4-yard run and, on the next play, Meaders found Murray behind the defense for a 56-yard touchdown with 7:22 to play.

“Just execution,” Bock said of the improved play in the second half. “We dropped balls. We wouldn’t block people early but then we just put it together. (Conway was) only sending five guys so we had them covered up. Then we kept going under them, under them, under them and boom, we bust one long. That was huge. That was the turning point right there.

“The kids just played well and they started believing,” he added. “Once we get some momentum, we believe we can do anything.”

The defense quickly got the ball back for the Hornets, holding Conway without a first down. On a third-and-4 at their own 49, the Wampus Cats lost yardage as Nate Wallace nailed backup runner Brennan Clark for a loss.

Brandon Murray caught five passes for 96 yards and three touchdowns. (Photo by Kevin Nagle)

A punt gave the ball back to Bryant at its 19. Meaders hit all four passes during the drive. His laser to Curtis for 7 yards converted an early third down. Ja’Kalon Pittman made a remarkable catch, going around a Conway defender, for 14 yards. A lateral to Scott went for 11 more then Meaders located Josh Robinson on a curl. Robinson made the grab and spun around past a defender and down the sideline 36 yards to the 1.

Safety Cameron Vail and three of his co-horts on defense, linebacker Jakob Neel and d-linemen Bryce Thomas and Austin Bailey, powered into the end zone and the Hornets had their first lead 35-31.

Conway still had time but the Hornets’ defensive line, knowing that the Cats would have to throw to have a chance to score, crashed through with sacks — one by Kajuan Robinson, the other by Bailey — on consecutive snaps and the Hornets took over on downs with 1:25 to go.

Vail put the clincher on it with a 9-yard touchdown run that, with the extra point of Martin Ramirez, set the final score.

An interception by Rondale Messer dashed whatever faint hopes the Cats may have retained.

“When you know it’s a pass situation, those d-lineman don’t have to think,” Burnett said. “They can just go ahead and get off the ball, work a pass-rush move. At worst, you’ll get a draw on second down. But they’re coached up. They know that. They did good.

“The guys, they trusted the process,” he added. “They played a whole lot harder. That first half, we played soft. We didn’t tackle well. They’ve got a running back that challenged our manhood and we didn’t step up.

Until the second half.

“I’m proud of them but 31 points is too many,” Burnett concluded.

Kajuan Robinson nearly takes the handoff as he buries Conway running back Drennan Clark (2). (Photo by Rick Nation)

Ramirez saved a touchdown on the opening kickoff as Clark nearly broke it. Conway, as they seemed to have all night, started with great field position. George gashed Bryant for runs of 15 and 24 yards right off the bat. A play later, Hreha faked to George and threw to the end zone for Will McKenna and a touchdown.

An interception set up Conway’s second score. It came on Meaders’ second pass of the night. Will Kennedy returned it to the 9. After a false start penalty pushed the Cats back, George sliced his way to the end zone and, with an extra point by Jordan Wicks, it was 14-0.

A three-and-out got the ball back to Conway near midfield. But the Bryant defense held them on four downs and the Hornets got the ball at their own 41. In 11 plays, they scored. Scott contributed runs of 11 and 19 yards.

Moments later, however, the Hornets faced a fourth-and-9 at the Conway 25. Meaders rolled out and, not finding an open receiver, took off, turned the corner and, with a final push, managed to pick up the first down.

That set up the Hornets’ first touchdown, a 22-yard throw from Meaders to Murray.

It didn’t stay 14-7 long, however. It looked like the Bryant defense would get the ball back before George broke a 63-yard touchdown run that made the score 21-7 with 1:09 left in the opening stanza.

The teams traded punts before Bryant drove for another score. A 23-yard pass from Meaders to Pittman set up the drive. Sophomore Ahmad Adams, spelling Scott, dashed 10 yards for a first down and, a play later, Scott returned to score from the 15.

Jake Leaders takes a knee near the end of Friday’s game. Ja’Kalon Pittman and Luke Curtis help protect him. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Ramirez booted it to 21-14.

Late in the half, Wicks knocked through the 40-yard field goal and Conway’s lead was 24-14 at the break.

There was hope in the fact that the Hornets were getting the ball on offense to start the third quarter. But a three-and-out followed.

After a punt, George ripped 24 yards to the Bryant 33. But the Cats were still at the 33 after the next three plays fizzled.

It took until the third possession of the half for the Hornets to cut back into the lead. Murray’s reception from Meaders from 14 yards out capped off a 90-yard march on seven plays. Meaders completed all six of his passes during the march.

In turn, the Cats were forced to punt when a reverse to Kennedy was sniffed out by Wright who dropped him for a 7-yard loss.

This time, the Hornets got great field position at the 47 of Conway. They reached the 32 but a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.

George’s injury and an 18-yard run to start the Cats’ next series. But, moments later, they faced a third-and-15 at the Conway 45. With pressure in his face, Hreha got a pass away to Kris Anderson that broke for 47 yards.

George returned with his ankle taped up. Running the “Wildcat”, he scored from the 3 and the lead grew to 31-21, setting the stage for Bryant’s thrilling comeback.

Just. Keep. Playing.

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