Panthers stun Hornets in freshman showdown

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

Will Diggins and teammate Cameron Booth (26) celebrate a fumble recovery. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Over the first eight games of the season, the Bryant Hornets freshman team turned the ball over just eight times and only once on an interception. But, in the season finale against the rival Benton Panthers, the Hornets turned it over four times including three interceptions and the Panthers took advantage, forging a 26-0 victory at Bryant Stadium on Tuesday night.

It was the first win in the series by a Benton freshman team since 2012; the first time a Bryant freshman team had been shutout since 2012 (against Cabot South); and the first time Benton’s freshmen blanked the Bryant frosh since 1999.

“If you would’ve told me we would not score any points, I’d have called you crazy,” declared Bryant head coach Kenny Horn. “We scored 70 points in the last two games.”

Indeed, the Hornets came into the game on a five-game winning streak that included a 42-32 win at Cabot South, the only loss this season for the Central Arkansas Junior High Conference champion. Bryant finishes the season 7-3 overall. Benton came into the game 4-5 but those four wins had come in succession.

“Overall, it was a good year,” said Horn. “We got better as the weeks went on. We’re still a lot better than we were but tonight, we didn’t show it.”

Fabian Torres rushed 12 times for 77 yards on Tuesday night. (Photo by Rick Nation)

The game was a defensive battle in the first half. The first three series ended in turnovers. Keyed by a 41-yard burst by quarterback Gianni Vannucci, the Panthers drove to the Hornets’ 7. Vannucci, trying to throw for the first time, was picked off by Bryant’s Pierce Kinley in the end zone.

Kinley returned the ball out to the 3 and the Hornets started a good drive. Fabian Torres had runs of 12 and 17 yards while quarterback Carson Burnett added a pair of 10-yard keepers. He also threw a 13-yard pass to Turner Seelinger as the Hornets reached the Benton 32.

But, trying to go for a big pass, Burnett was picked off by Cain Simmons.

The Panthers drove from their own 28 to the 46 where, on a second-down play, the ball was jarred loose from Vannucci and Bryant’s Will Diggins recovered at the Benton 43.

The Hornets, however, were unable to pick up a first down and wound up punting the Panthers back to their 21.

Keyed by a 22-yard run by Casey Johnson, another 22-yard scamper by Simmons on a speed sweep and a 14-yard bolt by Andre Lane on a reverse, the Panthers drove to the Bryant 2. Johnson scored from there then Vannucci added a run for a two-point conversion to make it 8-0 with 5:38 left in the first half.

Carson Burnett completed 5 of 14 pass for 47 yards. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Once again, the Hornets were on the march, apparently in line to answer the Benton score when Burnett, finishing off a 10-yard run to the Benton 35, had the ball taken away by Vannucci.

It was 8-0 at the half.

“Down one score, we should’ve been able to get back in it, but we didn’t protect the ball,” Horn acknowledged. “If you don’t protect the ball, you’re not going to win. You get down two or three scores with this short a time, you’re not going to make it up. It’s really hard to.”

The frustration for Bryant continued as, to open the second half, the Hornets benefitted from a face mask penalty against the Panthers on the kickoff return. From the Benton 47, they drove to the Benton 18, capped by a 14-yard burst from Torres.

But, on first down there, Burnett’s pass was intercepted by Vannucci at the 11.

The Panthers proceeded to put together an 89-yard march to paydirt and, what prove to be a back-breaking score.

Twice Vannucci converted third-down situations with clutch pass completions. First to Beau Wright then to Lane. He kept for 10 yards and, a play later, found Simmons for a 38-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-0.

Benton’s Cain Simmons is stopped short by Logan White (16) and a teammate Pierce Kinley on a two-point conversion try. (Photo by Rick Nation)

Desperate to get something going, the Hornets went for it on a fourth-and-11 at their own 30. Burnett’s pass deep down the middle was incomplete and the Panthers took over with a short field as the fourth quarter unfolded.

It took them one play. Vannucci passed to Lane for the touchdown and it was 20-0 with 7:27 left.

Burnett completed a pair of passes to start Bryant’s next drive then was picked off by Simmons again and the Panthers turned that into points. After a long return by Simmons, it took five plays to go 24 yards. Johnson scored from the 6 and it was 26-0.

“We couldn’t overcome, and I guess we got our dobber down a little bit and didn’t make plays like we did last week and the week before, the week before, the week before,” Horn said. “They didn’t do anything we didn’t expect them to do. I’m going to give them credit. I think they played harder than our kids did. We just didn’t execute what we were supposed to do.

“Hopefully these kids will learn from this and, in the future, they’ll just keep fighting harder,” he concluded.

With a win, the Hornets would’ve had a chance to tie for the CAJHC championship if Cabot North had been able to upset Cabot South. But South prevailed 16-12 to capture the league title.

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