Junior Hornets rally past Benton, share title
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the look back at each day in Bryant athletic history has been so favorably received during the time when there was no sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, BryantDaily.com will continueposting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
By ROB PATRICK
BENTON — How far they’ve come.
Overshadowed by their talent-rich predecessors who went unbeaten and won a Central Arkansas Junior High Conference championship, sidetracked by the late arrival of some of their teammates who were off winning nothing less than a national baseball championship, hampered by the loss of a starting offensive lineman and nagged by doubts from some quarters about their ability, the 2008 Bryant Hornets freshman team began their season under a cloud.
They ended it shining.
When Caleb Thomas speared a short pass from quarterback Dylan Thomas and laced his way through the defense of the Benton Junior Panthers 10 yards for a touchdown with :0.26.3 showing on the clock at C.W. Lewis Stadium, the Junior Hornets had overcome a 16-13 deficit. Moments later, linebacker Cameron Price intercepted a pass and returned it 48 yards to another score as time ran out as Bryant extracted a 26-16 victory.
The win, coupled with Cabot South’s 24-21 victory over Lake Hamilton, gave these Hornets a share of the championship of the South Division of the Central Arkansas Conference, gave them nine wins in 10 games which matches the record for most in a season by a freshman team at Bryant, and completed a remarkable transformation.
“These kids had come so far — they’ve covered 22 miles,” declared first-year head coach Kenny Horn, adding that he’d never been around a team that had developed as much over a season. “It’s unbelievable. And, to come from behind the last three games, two of them on the road, I never would’ve dreamed it. But that’s what it takes to win, that’s what it takes to build a good program, that’s what it takes to build a high school program.”
Asked what the formula had been, Horn added, “The who-to’s and how-to’s to begin with but, I tell you, I think we got them convinced after a few wins that they could win some football games. They got on our side and they just believed in themselves. That’s a big part of it. We just tried to tell them that this is Bryant and we win football games at Bryant. You don’t have a choice, you have to do it. And they bought into it. Coach (Bart) Reynolds, Coach (Dale) Jones and Coach (Kirk) Bock, that’s three great coaches that we’ve got here and we’re lucky to have those guys.
“We’re not out for personal records,” he added. “We’re just here to win football games. We’re here to coach these kids up and get them to the next level and if winning football games is what happens along the way, then good.”
The Junior Hornets have won nine games, in fact, in three of the last four years, and seven in two others since the last losing campaign. That’s 41-7 over the last five seasons.
Actually the prospects for a ninth win didn’t look too good for awhile. Benton, which gouged the Hornet defense for 215 yards on the ground, more than any other team this season, had a 16-14 lead and the football with 7:50 left in the game. Taking possession at their own 3, the Panthers methodically pounded the Hornets defense, reaching their own 45 while eating up six minutes of the eight-minute quarter.
When Bryant held on a third-and-7 and called a timeout with 1:50 to play, the Panthers decided to punt the Hornets deep and try to nail down the win on defense.
A short punt ensued and Bryant gained possession at its 25 with 1:40 to go, down by 3, with field goal kicker Jace Denker sidelined due to an injury suffered earlier in the game.
Though they’d only tried to go deep a couple of times in the game, the Hornets decided to take a shot on first down. Sawyer Nichols got free down the seam too and Cross led him perfectly. Nichols caught it in stride and wasn’t pulled down until he got to the 9, a 66-yard completion.
On the next play, running back Jacob Powell who had been bottled up for the most part by the Benton defense, was dropped for a loss to the 10. The Hornets called a timeout with :30.7 showing and Jones, the offensive coordinator, called a play that had been good to the offense all game long and much of the season too: the tunnel screen.
Cross and Thomas had hooked up three previous times on that play, one of which broke for a 32-yard touchdown. But this time, the room to run it was a bit more limited. Cross took the shotgun snap from McKenzie Kerry, looked left and pump-faked then turned to his right where Thomas had delayed then drifted inside behind the Hornets’ offensive linemen who were hustling upfield as the Benton d-line flooded through on Cross. Thomas snared the pass and sprinted across the middle of the field behind the blocks of the linemen, Kerry, Taylor Shaw, Jason Simpson, Kayden Mills and Tryce Schalchlin, cut upfield at about the 5 and slashed into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
“The tunnel screen has been good to us,” agreed Horn. “We dropped one early in the game, but, I tell you what, that right there was one heck of a catch by Caleb and one heck of a play. And Dylan is a heck of a quarterback. He’s done a heck of a job for us all year.”
By completing 12 of 18 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns, Cross topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season (68 of 116 for 1,037). He finished with 11 scoring throws and just three interceptions.
Without the usually reliable Denker, the Hornets tried for 2 and Powell’s run came up short.
On the ensuing kickoff, Johnathan Parks, taking Denker’s place, lined one pass the first line of Panthers. The ball was muffed initially and deep man Zach Riley had to cover it at the 28 with 0:23.4 on the clock.
On first down, Benton quarterback Dylan Harris had to track down a low snap. Under pressure, he somehow got a throw away toward Riley, the speedy Panthers running back who had broken a 62-yard touchdown run earlier in the game. The floater just barely got over the outreached hands of Price who had read the play and went for an interception. But Riley got a hand on it and deflected it to himself, sprinting up the left sideline before being driven out of bounds at the 45 by the Hornets with 0:08 to play.
As the next play unfolded, it looked like the Panthers were going to try and hook-and-lateral. Harris tried to get the ball to a receiver who had hooked up 10 yards downfield. Riley was trailing the play in anticipation of receiving the lateral but Price stepped in front of Harris’ throw and sailed past Riley down the sideline for a touchdown to end the game.
The Hornets drove into Benton territory to start the game but Cross’ third interception of the season, an overthrow that the Panthers’ Conner Tate hauled in, ended the threat. On runs of 21, 10 and 9 yards among those made by Riley, Benton drove to the Bryant 15. But, on second down there, Bryant’s Blue Smith knifed through and dropped Riley for a loss of 4. The Panthers were unable to recover and when a fourth-down throw by Harris fell incomplete in the end zone, Bryant took over at the 13.
Plagued by penalties, the Hornets’ subsequent drive stalled at their own 37 when a holding infraction wiped out a pass for a first down.
After a 45-yard punt by Powell turned the field position over, the Panthers picked up a first down on two runs by Braxton Reese then Riley broke free on his touchdown run. And when Harris threw to Tommario Beaugard for the two-point conversion, Benton held an 8-0 lead with 5:10 left in the half.
Bryant responded, however, aided by a pair of major penalties against the Panthers, driving 59 yards in seven plays, capped by the tunnel screen to Thomas that covered the final 32 stripes. Powell ran for the two-point conversion and the game was tied 8-8 with 3:00 left in the half.
Moments later, Bryant linebacker Sam Stoops Sam Stoops drilled Riley, knocking the ball free. Brantley Cozart recovered for the Hornets at the Panthers’ 34.
Cross fired a 14-yard completion to Nichols then, a play later, a short toss to Parks that he turned into a 21-yard play to the 2. Another penalty, however, cost the Hornets 5 yards. (They were flagged 11 times for 88 yards in the game.) But, a play later, Cross tossed a pass to Parks for a touchdown to make it 14-8 with 50 seconds left in the half.
Before the half was over, both teams were assessed unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Bryant’s came on the kickoff and Benton’s came two plays later and resulted in the ejection of a player.
Benton got the ball to start the second half and a 26-yard pass from Harris to Jacob Pringle got the Panthers on their way to the go-ahead score. Reese crashed for 11 yards and yet another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Hornets was tacked on to get the ball to the 14. Four plays later, Reese scored from the 1. He also ran for the two-point conversion that gave Benton its lead but not until the Hornets were penalized half the distance to the goal line because of a personal foul and a pass interference penalty on the Panthers’ first try, an incomplete pass. That was on the heels of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the TD.
“They said the kids were mouthing but they couldn’t say who and when we asked, the kids swore they weren’t,” Horn related.
That, as it turned out, was the last of it, whatever was going on. Neither team was flagged for those kinds of infractions the rest of the game. But, on the ensuing kickoff, Benton got to kick it from the Bryant 45. Powell returned to the 25 and the Hornets offense came onto the field and promptly marched into Benton territory behind Powell and three pass completions by Cross. A 14-yard strike to Thomas converted a third down early in the drive. Later, Parks caught a 5-yarder then the tunnel screen worked again for 30 yards with Thomas making it to the 8.
Two runs by Powell reached the 3. After an incomplete pass, the Hornets went for it on fourth down with Denker unavailable to try a field goal the could’ve put them ahead. Cross rolled to his right and, under pressure, just under-threw Nichols a yard deep in the end zone.
Benton took over with 7:50 left and started the time-consuming march that, as it turned out, just didn’t quite consume enough.