Only one football team in each classification gets to end its season with a playoff victory and in 1999 that wound up being the Fort Smith Northside Grizzlies, who beat the Springdale Bulldogs in the Class AAAAA State championship game. Along the way, the Griz brought down the high-flying Bryant Hornets at Bryant Stadium, ending the greatest season in the program’s history, the 10th anniversary of which we’ve celebrated this year. — Rob
Northside ends Hornets’ dream season
By ROB PATRICK
Bryant Stadium, still aglow in the November night, was nearly empty. At one end, a trio of 20-somethings took turns trying to kick field goals. At the other end, a television crew of two prepared for an on-the-spot report for the 10 o’clock news. At midfield, a lone figure stood, gazing at the turf then lifting his head to look around him.
For awhile, he wandered a bit, eventually shuffling to the sideline — the home side. There, Aaron Mears slumped down on the bench, sat back and surveyed the scene, where he and his teammates had spent so many nights of blood, sweat and joy, where he and his fellow seniors had just played for the final time in the blue, white and red of the Bryant Hornets.[more]
Most of the teammates had dispersed. A half-dozen or so remained in the locker room, in various stages of undress — a couple still in full pads and uniform — overtaken by their emotions. It was not so much because the Hornets had lost — they’d felt defeat’s sting before, though not in a long time, not this season — but because that loss had put an end to one of the focal points of their young lives. Not only was the greatest season of football in Bryant High School history done, but for those trailblazing seniors their days of playing football for the Hornets were, as well.
Some will go on to play in college, most will never don the pads and play full-tilt tackle football ever again.
For six weeks, they’d been the top-ranked team in the state. For 11 weeks they’d been unbeatable. The Hornets knocked down records like they knocked down opponents until Friday when the Fort Smith Northside Grizzlies, co-champions of the AAAAA-West Conference, pulled a 14-0 upset becoming one of three West teams in the final four of the Class AAAAA playoffs.
After 11 weeks of thriving by taking what defenses gave it — and then some — the Hornets’ offense was faced with one that gave it nothing.
With three down linemen, three linebackers and four of their five defensive backs all within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, the Grizzlies actually appeared to be vulnerable in several areas. But they stuffed the Hornets’ running game and kept pressure on quarterback Derik McCoy, refusing to be blocked by an offensive line that, over 11 weeks, had proved to be one of the best in the state.
The rush would come from those three linemen by themselves at times. But, mostly, in combination with one or more linebackers blitzing from a variety of angles. And the athletic players in the secondary not only kept the bevy of excellent Hornets receivers under wraps for the most part, they came up with a stunning seven interceptions.
In fact, the Hornets, after going the last six games without an interception and only suffering 18 turnovers all season, had eight turnovers and a blocked punt against Northside.
With that in mind, it’s equally as stunning that Northside only mustered 14 points. Bryant’s defense saw to that with yeomen’s work, on the field for 68 plays.
"Anytime you run a passing offense, this is the downside of it," stated Hornets head coach Daryl Patton. "If you’re not on, you’re not in sync — and it was just the whole offense. We couldn’t run the ball real well. Northside had a great game plan. It forced us into an all-pass situation and that’s tough on Derik. I called some pass plays — quite a few of them — and told Derik to throw it and Derik threw it just like I told him to do. They were pick-offs without a doubt and that was my fault.
"But Derik had a great season and our offense has had a great season," Patton added.
"Tonight, though, our defense took it to another level," he noted. "I thought they played a state championship style defense. They gave us a chance to be in the ballgame."
All the scoring in the game came in a nightmarish few minutes near the end of the third quarter. The two teams had struggled through a scoreless first half and, after the Hornets had stopped the Grizzlies on a fourth-and-1 at the Bryant 29 with 4:19 left in the third, Bryant appeared to gain some momentum.
But Northside’s defense rose up and the Hornets wound up punting after three frustrating plays.
That’s when the game turned. Northside’s Sean Conley blocked the kick by Josh Ault. The ball ricocheted upfield where the Grizzlies’ Sharief Shabbazz scooped it up and returned to the Bryant 9.
Still, the Hornet defense showed no sign of budging. Northside tried rugged sophomore fullback Reggie Arter on the blast up the middle — a play that eventually netted Arter 119 yards on 30 carries — but Bryant hammered him for no gain.
On the next play, the Grizzlies’ completed their first pass of the game. After faking to Arter up the middle, quarterback Keith Turnipseed rolled out to his left and passed to halfback Juan Parker in the flat. Parker rolled into the end zone, snapping the deadlock with 2:51 left in the third quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Hornets’ Jonathan Jameson returned out to the 21. But a penalty on the return left them at their own 6. Uncertain they could make anything on the ground, the Hornets faked a dive and McCoy dropped back to pass out of the end zone. But Northside had run a jail-break blitz — with almost everybody coming. Seeing that he was about to be dropped for a safety, McCoy, as he was going down, tried to flip the ball to Matt White just a few feet to his right. But White was surrounded as well. The ball never got to him. It hit the ground and there was Shabbazz to cover it for the second Northside touchdown within 11 seconds.
Still, with more than a quarter to play, it figured that the Hornets’ offense might get on track and rally. After all, this Bryant team had separated itself from those that came before it by staring down such adversity, overcoming it and thriving anyway.
But, though they had been behind by as much as 12 earlier in the season, they had never been behind so much, so late in a game with so much riding on it and against such a talented foe.
The Hornets had five possessions after it became 14-0 and each of them ended in interceptions. The first started well with McCoy completing a 19-yard pass to Josh Farmer. But his next attempt was picked off by Shabbazz.
The defense got the ball back moments later when Northside wingback Qasim Abdul Khaliaq was forced to fumble near midfield.
The second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Grizzlies in less than a minute gave the Hornets a first down just 36 yards away from paydirt. McCoy passed 15 yards to Matt Brown then Luke Brown picked up 4 on the ground.
At the 17, the Hornets went for the end zone. But McCoy’s pass was picked off by Leonard Williams at the goal line. Williams returned to the 35.
Thus ended Bryant’s best opportunity to score in the second half.
The fourth quarter ended with Northside on a march that wound up at the Bryant 26 where, on a fourth-and-6, Turnipseed threw incomplete with 8:11 left to play.
The resulting Bryant possession lasted one play. McCoy’s pass was tipped then intercepted by Shabbazz.
Northside chewed time before being forced to punt with just over four minutes left to play.
Kicked back to their own 19, the Hornets tried to get things rolling once again. McCoy and Matt Brown connected for 12 yards but another deep pass was picked off by Williams.
Northside drove to the 5 where, once again, the Hornets defense made a stand, stopping Parker on a fourth-and-2 with 1:23 left to play.
Bryant’s last-gasp series reached the 46 before another interception by Shabbazz on a deep pass ended it.
Both teams had missed chances to score in the first half. Initially, Bryant had the field-position advantage. In fact, on the Hornets’ second possession of the game, they started at the Northside 48. But, after Matt White was stopped for no gain, McCoy had a pass tipped then intercepted by Aaron McGrew and returned to the Bryant 35.
The Grizzlies inched the 17 before the Hornets forced Turnipseed to fumble. Bryant recovered with Josh Baumbeck and Michael McClellan near the ball.
But the Hornets went three and out on offense and Northside came back with another threat behind Arter who made his first carry with 3:25 left in the first period, rumbling for 9 yards.
Northside eventually reached the 8 with a first and goal. Arter budged the pile up for a yard then Khalieq swept to the 2. But, on third down there, the Hornets crashed through and dropped Parker for a loss back to the 7 forcing a field goal attempt.
When Mario Franco’s attempt was wide, the Hornets took over on the 20.
Using a short-yardage formation, Bryant got a bit of a push with its running game. Luke Brown came through with consecutive runs of 6 yards. A third run managed just 1 more then they returned to a spread formation. After an incomplete pass, they returned to the tight alignment, faked a run and McCoy completed a 32-yard pass to Mears. It was Mears’ first reception of the season.
An offsides penalty moved the ball 5-yards closer for the Hornets then Farmer plunged for 11 yards on a quick-hitter up the middle. That put Bryant at the 19.
Two runs netted two yards from there and, facing a third-and-8 at the 17, the Hornets returned to the air. McCoy’s pass into the end zone was intercepted by Shabbazz.
Holding and intentional grounding penalties against the Grizzlies on their subsequent series left them punting out of their own end zone. Bryant got the ball back at the Northside 35. But the Hornets were unable to muster a first down and had to punt.
It wasn’t long before the Grizzlies were punting back to them, however, and, with 1:23 left in the half, the Hornets got one more chance with good field position, starting at their own 43.
On a second down, McCoy scrambled to avoid three rushers and found Michael Wallace behind the Northside secondary for a 30-yard pass play to the Grizzlies 27.
But three plays later, the Hornets had only reached the 22. Ault came on to attempt a 39-yard field goal. His kick was long enough but just wide, leaving the game scoreless at the half.
While reflecting on the season, Patton lauded the coaching staff, saying, "The entire staff, from top to bottom, they came in from day one, we pushed the kids but what I was proud of was the attitudes that they had each and every day. It was positive and that’s something that’s been missing here for awhile.
"The defensive coaches, coach (Steve) Griffith, coach (Clay) Beason and coach (Brad) Stroud — they work real well as a team. To hold teams to just 14 points a game throughout the whole season was above and beyond my expectations.
"Our offensive coaches, coach (Paul) Calley and coach (Joe) Calhoun — they each, every week, kept doing one better, coming up with a game plan that was top notch and it’s a credit to them.
"And our players, they just stepped it up week in and week out. One loss does not make a season. They’re hurting right now, but 11-1 — that ain’t bad."
FORT SMITH NORTHSIDE 14,BRYANT 0
Score by quarters
FS Northside 0 0 14 0 — 14
BRYANT 0 0 0 0 — 0
FS NORTHSIDE — Parker 9 pass from Turnipseed (Franco PAT), 2:51
FS NORTHSIDE — Shabazz fumble recovery in end zone (Franco PAT), 2:40
First downs 14 12
Rushes-yds. 61-216 16-54
Passing 3-7-0 11-33-7
Passing yds. 29 148
Punts 6-30.2 5-24.2
Fumbles-lost 2-2 1-1
Penalties-yds. 7-57 3-34
Rushing: BRYANT, McCoy 3-24, L.Brown 9-21, Farmer 1-11, White 3-(-2); FS NORTHSIDE, Arter 30-119, Parker 15-40, Ross 8-27, Khaliaq 4-16, Andrews 2-13, Turnipseed 2-1.
Passing (C-A-I-Y): BRYANT, McCoy 11-33-7-148; FS NORTHSIDE, Turnipseed 3-7-0-29.
Receiving: BRYANT, M.Brown 5-56, Wallace 2-33, White 2-8, Mears 1-32, Farmer 1-16; FS NORTHSIDE, Parker 2-26, Andrews 1-3.