By Rob Patrick
The end always comes as a shock. That’s because an athlete doesn’t allow himself[more] (or herself) to even consider losing. If they do, it’s over before it begins. And if the last battle comes at home, like it did Friday night for the Bryant Hornets football team, the players linger a little longer on the field, the locker room, the halls of the field house, like a family going through an old house one more time before they leave it for a final time on their way to a new one. They console each other and are consoled by family and friends.
The end came for the Hornets in a frustrating 28-21 loss to the rival Cabot Panthers.
But, ultimately, it’s that finality that hurts the most.
“Like I told our seniors, a loss — I can live with a loss — but it’s losing them that just kills you,” said Hornets head coach Paul Calley. “They deserve better. They deserve to go out better.
“They love it and we love them,” he continued emotionally. “They know they’ll always be a part. We try to make it special. You know, they put so much time and effort in, you’ve got to make them feel special and I think they do. We’re all family and they don’t want to go. And I don’t want them to go.”
It’s particularly difficult to accept when you feel your players didn’t get a fair shake. Calley made no bones about it. When asked what he felt was the turning point in the game, he stated, “The officials were the turning point the whole night. It’s going to end up driving me out of coaching. I don’t know if I can take it. You know, those guys are probably doing the best they can do but it ain’t very good. And I’m sick to death of it.”
He had a number of examples.
“We had two plays they marked us at the one-centimeter line. Tell me how that happens,” he began.
The first of those came at the end of the first half. Trailing 21-7, the Hornets got a break when Cabot’s punt returner Chris Henry muffed one and Bryant sophomore Mark Nelson, who also intercepted a pass, pounced on it at the Panthers’ 28.
A 20-yard pass from quarterback Hayden Lessenberry to K.J. Hill gave the Hornets a first and goal.
After Hill was flung down for a loss of 13 on a reverse pass attempt, it was second and goal at the 21. Cabot, which intercepted three passes in the game, appeared to have a fourth but only because the intended receiver was tackled in the secondary with the ball in the air.
The officials caught that one and it kept the drive alive at the 11 despite vehement protest from Cabot head coach Mike Malham who apparently got his point across because, on the next two pass plays into the end zone, Hill was grabbed or clobbered as he tried to get to the pass. And there was no call.
“A karate chop to the throat when the ball’s in the air and they don’t see it and they don’t call it,” Calley recounted.
On fourth down, Lessenberry scrambled, got to the goal line and apparently across it. But he was marked down at the lip of the end zone — the one centimeter line, if you will — and Cabot took over on downs with :56 left in the half, still up by 14.
The second incident came late. Bryant trailed 28-14 but got the ball on an interception by Bryce Denker. Keyed by a 20-yard pass from Lessenberry to Austin Powell, the Hornets reached the 15. On the next play, the Bryant quarterback found Brushawn Hunter in the right flat. Hunter made a move and got to the goal line. He lunged at the pylon and appeared to have gotten the ball across the line and inside the pylon but was ruled down just short.
Bryant eventually got in the end zone on Lessenberry’s pass to Powell to close the gap but the extra time that it took was crucial. Instead of scoring around the four-minute mark, they got in with 2:12 left to play.
Cabot’s old-school dead-T offense produced 409 yards total with 358 coming on the ground.
“And they’re holding us all the way down the field,” Calley asserted. “I told (the officials) before the game, they were going to be holding us all the way down the field because they do it every time we’ve played them. It’s against the rules. They got one holding flag all night. And it was obvious. We’re screaming at the top of our lungs as it’s happening right in front of us and that’s why they got it.”
In the second half, the Bryant defense battling with injured senior starters Aaron Bell, Justin Hollingshead and Stoney Stevens but bulked up by the addition of offensive linemen Ian Shuttleworth and Brandon Caple, stopped the Panthers on the first four possessions of the second half.
It was another example of the work of Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith, the master of the halftime adjustment.
“Coach Griff changed a couple of things we were keying and we had people in a little bit better position to play the option,” Calley related.
A 67-yard reception and run by Hill with 4:46 left in the third quarter had the Cabot lead trimmed to 21-14 late in the third quarter.
After an exchange of punts, the game of inches (or centimeters) played into things again. To whit: If Cabot punter Keith Pledger had been 5-11 instead of 6-feet tall, or if his vertical jump was anything less than it is, or if the punt snap had been an inch (or centimeter) higher, Bryant might’ve been put in a position to tie the game, either by recovering the ball in scoring position or by scooping and scoring.
As it was Pledger was just tall enough, leapt just high enough to tip the sailing snap. And it just happened to come right back down in his hands. With the Hornets’ rush closing in on him, he got the punt away. And it was a boomer.
Hill, back to return it, had to drop back further to the point where he wasn’t sure where he was when he made a fair catch. He had backtracked to the 1.
The Hornets went three-and-out and with less space than usual to punt it out of the end zone, Denker did a good job of booting it cleanly. But the kick was short and the Panthers gained possession at the Bryant 30.
They pounded to the end zone in four plays — their only score of the second half.
On Bryant’s ensuing possession, an 8-yard pass to Hill got things started. A 15-yard penalty for a hit out of bounds advanced the ball to the Cabot 38.
The Hornets had made some yardage on the bubble screen during the game so, figuring Cabot was compensating, offensive coordinator Lance Parker had Lessenberry fake a throw for the bubble then look up field for Hill, who had faked a block and taken off. But Cabot’s sophomore safety Jacob Ferguson, who played center field all night, streaked in front of Hill, who had a step on the cornerback. Ferguson came up with his second interception of the game.
Bryant, which came into the contest having thrown just five interceptions in 10 games, suffered three against the Panthers. In turn, the Hornets picked off two throws by Cabot quarterback Kason Kimbrell and recovered two fumbles.
“You’ve got to make the most of every opportunity,” Calley said of his offense. “If you falter one time, it’ll come back to bite you.”
The Hornets actually wound up with more opportunities on offense than they usually have against Cabot. The two teams played each year since 2006 as members of the Central Conference. This year, the Hornets were moved to the South and the Panthers to the East, however.
Following Ferguson’s interception, Cabot picked up one first down before the Hornets defense again made a stand, stopping a third-and-4 keeper by Kimbrell for no gain at the 39.
Pledger came in to punt again and the Hornets set up to be ready for a fake. Cabot ran it anyway as blocking back Zachary Launius took the direct snap and raced around right end, turning the corner and picking up the first down.
As it turned out, it proved to be more costly time-wise than anything as, three plays later, Denker picked off the pass that second up the Hornets final touchdown.
Once Bryant had cut the lead to 28-21, an onside kick attempt was covered by the Panthers despite the fact that the Hornets came up off the bottom of the pile with the football. They started to celebrate but it was ruled that the Cabot player was down before the ball came loose.
With no timeouts, the Hornets couldn’t stop the clock and when they couldn’t stop the Panthers from picking up a first down, it was over.
“I second-guess myself all the time,” Calley said. “There’s a couple of things I would’ve done different. We got in field goal range a couple of times and we didn’t kick it. I thought we had to maximize every possession.”
Bryant’s first two possessions of the game ended with interceptions in Cabot territory. Ferguson made the first pick at the 17. Nelson’s interception ended the Panthers’ subsequent drive to the Bryant 29.
Taking over at the 2, the Hornets marched to the Cabot 25 with Devonte Howard, Hunter and Hill grabbing Lessenberry throws. On a first-and-25, however, the Panthers’ Jordan Burke intercepted at the 5. His return to the 22 set up the game’s first score, a 4-yard run by Max Carroll with :07 left in the first half.
The Hornets answered with a 94-yard march to tie it. Lessenberry went 3-for-3 on the drive and contributed a 15-yard run. The big play was a 41-yard shot to Hunter that reached the Cabot 27. Hill hauled in the touchdown pass on the next snap.
Trying to keep possession, the Hornets attempted an onside kick but Cabot covered it and drove 58 yards in five plays to regain the advantage. Launius’ 28-yard run reached the end zone.
Bryant’s answering drive reached the Cabot 37 bunt got no further. When a fourth-down pass fell incomplete, the Panthers took over and, in six running plays, added to the lead. Henry bolted 21-yards for the touchdown to make it 21-7.
That set up the dramatic finish to the first half.
Cabot got the ball to start the second half and at the Bryant 44, Kimbrell was smacked on the option. His pitch went awry and Kordell Boykins recovered for the Hornets. He scooped the ball up and headed the other way only to have Henry bring him down before he could get too far.
Bryant was unable to cash in, though a 14-yard pass from Lessenberry to Powell helped get the ball to the 20. But when Lessenberry couldn’t find an open receiver and got sacked on a fourth-down play from the 22, Cabot took over on downs.
Again, the defense came through after the Panthers used a rare pass play to pick up 26 yards to get into Bryant territory. But, on a fourth-and-4 at the 32, Kimbrell’s pass fell incomplete as Tim Kelly got to the quarterback.
Bryant took over and the Lessenberry-Hill connection produced the touchdown that made it 21-14.
Cabot advances to play second-ranked North Little Rock next Friday. The Hornets’ finish the season 7-4.
“We fought to the very end,” Calley asserted. “That’s the way these kids are. The first game of the year was the only one we didn’t have a chance to win at the end. I don’t know how we could’ve matched up with North Little Rock but we sure would’ve liked the chance to continue.”
CABOT 28, BRYANT 21