By Rob Patrick
Those wondering just how good the 4-0 Van Buren Pointers are this season are really missing the point.
You see, four wins are as many as the Pointers teams have mustered in the previous three seasons combined. Van Buren hasn’t won four games in a season since the 4-6 2004 campaign and haven’t avoided a losing record since they went 5-5 in 2001. Fact is, Pointers teams haven’t had a winning season since 1999 when they went 7-3. That was also the last time they reached the State playoffs.
So you can see why they’re excited about their football team in Van Buren.
Longtime Bryant fans can certainly relate. While Van Buren’s dry spell between winning campaigns has now reached 10 seasons, during the late 1980’s and most of the decade of the ‘90’s, Bryant teams went 13 years between winning marks. Now, the Hornets haven't had a losing season since 1998.
Friday night, the Pointers visit Bryant Stadium.
“We’re senior-laden and that’s always a good thing when your best players are seniors,” stated Van Buren head coach Mike Lee. “We’ve taken our lumps over the years and those guys are part of that. The chemistry and the bond that these guys share has really transcended us.”
So far, Lee’s team has defeated rival Alma, 7A-West member Rogers, Harrison and, last week, 7A/6A-Central Conference foe Little Rock Central. Admittedly, those four teams combine for a 5-11 record. And though Alma and Harrison are in a lower classification, Rogers and Central are both in a higher classification. (Van Buren is one of two teams in the 7A/6A-Central that will compete at the Class 6A level come playoff time.)
All four wins have been lopsided. The final of 41-31 against Central was deceiving because it was 41-10 before the Tigers scored three times against the Van Buren reserves.
“We have been fortunate in the first four games of the year to play well,” Lee said. “We understand what’s in front of us as regards to our opponents from here on out. It’s quite a bit different than the four that we’ve played to be honest with you.
“But it’s been a joy to be around kids who play for each other,” he added. “Their bond strengthens daily so it’s been a lot of fun.”Nothing makes you appreciate winning like losing.
Bryant comes into the game with a 3-1 mark. The Hornets stumbled against the Fort Smith Northside Grizzlies in the second week of the season, their only other game at Bryant Stadium so far. It appears to have served as a wake-up call. They have since buried Texarkana and Little Rock Catholic by a combined score of 66-13.
“We’re up against a formidable opponent,” Lee said. “It’s our first true road test. We were on the road week one at Alma but that’s not really a road game.”
“(Bryant head coach) Paul Calley, his team looks like they always do, physical, big, running backs that run hard,” he assessed. “They’ll suffocate you on defense, special teams play that scares you. They are a traditional power in this conference and I don’t see any letdown.”
Asked if the game would serve as a test to see how far his team had come, Lee scoffed a bit then said, “I guess you could say it’s a test. They are what they are and we really can’t focus on them because if we do that then we’ll talk ourselves into not having a chance. We’ve got to focus on us and getting better at what we do.”
“We just have to make sure we’re sound in our blocking schemes,” Calley said. “They like to stunt a lot. It’s just going to be a matter of, can we out-physical them up front. They’re not real big but they fly to the ball. Their noseguard is really good and their inside linebackers are really good. They’ve got a real good free safety.”
The Hornets have a veteran offensive line with tackles Austin Johnson, Colby Maness and Jordan Murdock, guards Landon Pickett and Steven Lecamu with center Justin Rauch. They also utilize tight ends Josh Hampton and Cody Elmore.
Bryant’s running game has produced 762 yards with several backs contributing. Stephen Clark has 230 yards on 33 tries, Karon Dismuke has 197 yards on 37 carries.
The Hornets will, however, be without fullback Marcus Harris, a gifted blocker, due to an ankle injury last week against Catholic. Sophomore Jalen Bell (98 yards on 16 tries) remains sidelined as well. Senior Dylan Pritchett will get the start at fullback where he’s been an effective running picking up 112 yards on just 13 carries this season.
Sophomore quarterback Hayden Lessenberry is coming off his best night of the season. He was 11 of 14 for 198 yards and two touchdowns. His favorite target has been Sawyer Nichols with 10 catches for 242 yards.
“Defensively, our nose tackle Jessie Nichols has played very consistent for us,” Lee said. “Our two inside linebackers, Marshall Newby and Kevin Neal, have played consistent for us. Cole Plunkett in the secondary as well as Ethan Six and Joseph Snapp at the other corner and Jimmy Barber’s our returning starter at safety. All four of those guys have been very consistent for us.
“We have changed a little bit with our coverage concept on the back end,” he mentioned. “That’s been a little different but that’s worked out for us.”
Newby, Neal, Nichols and Plunkett are 1-2-3-4 on the team in tackles.
“Offensively, it starts with our quarterback Tyler Spoon,” Lee continued. “He’s a three-year starter for us. We have two senior wideouts, Joseph Snapp and Drew White, who have really stepped up and made a lot of plays for us. We have two running backs that have really run well, Jacob Jenkins and Steven Cline. Our offensive line has played well and very consistent for us. They’re all seniors led by our center Aaron Burns.”
Jenkins leads the team with 330 yards rushing on 52 attempts. Spoon has completed 49 of 82 passes for 755 yards and five touchdowns. White has caught 28 of those passes for 504 yards and all five scores.
“Last year, we were much more under center,” Lee noted. “This year, we’ve been much more in the gun offensively just because of the personnel that we have. We’ve always had it but we just accent different things this year.”
Bryant’s defense is led by Hampton at defensive end with 32 tackles. Linebackers Hunter Mayall and Jacob Brady along with safety Holden Chavis follow on the tackle chart.
“Van Buren presents another outstanding quarterback,” said Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “We’ve seen several of those so far this year. The Spoon kid is very capable of throwing the ball well and he’s a good athlete. He operates the offense really well, doesn’t make many mistakes. He does a good job of running the option, getting the ball pitched to their running backs, Jenkins and Cline. White is a tall, athletic receiver. He does a very good job of catching the ball, getting himself open. He does a good job of adjusting routes.
“Spoon and White are probably the primary weapons they have that we really want to be conscious of and, of course, just like always, reading our keys and doing the things we’re supposed to do up front,” he continued. “And, hopefully, playing with the passion and the aggressive nature that we showed from the second quarter on against Catholic the other night.”
After a sluggish start against the Rockets allowing a touchdown on the first possession, the Hornets, with some encouragement from Griffith, shut them out the rest of the way.
“The whole crew took it to heart,” Griffith acknowledged. “They all responded well and, I think, realized that they had not played to their capability the first drive. Like I told them, I was very, very proud of the effort from that point forward. We stepped up and played with the fire and an aggressive nature and played smart, read our keys, did what we were supposed to and made it very difficult on Catholic to move the football.”
It is Bryant’s Homecoming. The Homecoming Queen, chosen from seniors Callie Smith, Stephanie Friemel, Karley Cruse, Bailey Freyaldenhoven and Dylan Vail will be crowned at 6:50 p.m. Kickoff is at 7.