SPORTS >>Harding Academy finishes undefeated
By RICK BUTLER
Special to The Leader
SEARCY – The Harding Academy Wildcats accomplished numerous goals on Friday night at First Security Stadium. The most important one, though, could have been that the Wildcats remained injury free heading into the playoffs.
The HA offense was as efficient as it’s been all season and the defense turned in another dominating performance as the Wildcats trounced playoff-bound Perryville, 45-16.
The victory was the 27th consecutive for Harding Academy, which eclipsed the old school record set by the Bill Barden-coached Wildcats from 1976-78.
The win also gave Harding Academy (10-0) its second consecutive perfect regular season. The Wildcats, who clinched the top seed in the 2-3A Conference with last week’s 34-18 victory over Rose Bud, earned a first-round bye in the state playoffs.
Harding Academy made quick work of Perryville, which had already secured the league’s fourth playoff seed. Senior quarterback Luke Tribble completed 20-of-30 passes for 255 yards, all in the first half, as the Wildcats built a 39-0 halftime advantage. With the 35-point mercy rule in effect, the starters became spectators for the third and fourth quarters.
Harding Academy’s high-powered offense scored on its first five possessions and six of its seven in the first half. The Wildcats got a trio of rushing touchdowns from junior J.T. Fisher on runs of two, six and four yards. Tribble also connected with Chris Pack, Brad London and Dee Gibbs on short scoring tosses.
Perryville (6-4) managed little against the Harding Academy starting defense, picking up just 38 total yards in the first half.
“Our offense was really good, but once again, our defense just absolutely dominated,” Harding Academy coach Tommy Shoemaker said. “They played extremely well and got us in a position where we could play a lot of young guys again this week.”
It took the Wildcats 12 plays to score their first TD. A 16-yard pass from Tribble to Pack on 4th-and-11 from their own 42 was likely the most dramatic play of the game. Seven plays later, Tribble hooked up with Pack again for a five-yard TD at the 4:21 mark of the first quarter.
After a Perryville punt, the Wildcats needed just 50 seconds to find the end zone again. A 36-yard pass from Tribble to Chase Ransom set up Fisher’s first scoring run with 11 seconds left in the opening quarter.
After a short Mustang punt was returned into Perryville territory by Pack, Tribble found Ty Finley for a 33-yard gain, setting up a one-yard TD pass to London with 10:33 left in the first half. A Perryville drive stalled when the Wildcats held at midfield and passes from Tribble to Pack (13 yards), Finley (17 yards) and Pack again (14 yards) set up Fisher’s six-yard TD run. Tribble’s PAT made it 27-0 with seven minutes left in the half.
Less than 20 seconds later, Michael Hickmon recovered a Perryville fumble and Tribble went back to work. He hit Ransom for 11 yards, then again for 16 before finding Gibbs from four yards out with 4:37 left in the second.
Harding Academy’s only first-half drive that failed to produce points ended at the Mustangs’ 38 but Perryville fumbled the ball right back. A 21-yard pass from Tribble to Pack set up Fisher’s eight-yard TD run and a 39-0 lead.
The hoopla surrounding the Wildcats’ win streak and an undefeated regular season failed to faze Harding Academy.
“We really didn’t talk about any of that at all this week,” Shoemaker said. “We were extremely focused on Perryville and what we needed to do on the field.”
Due to reclassification among Arkansas high schools, the Wildcats now get to enjoy a week off before opening the playoffs.
“It’s really a weird situation,” Shoemaker said. “As a coaching staff, we’re trying to figure out exactly what we need to do this week. We’re trying to come up with some creative things to keep their interest up. We’re going to change our schedule a little this week, then we’ll go and scout.”
Fisher finished with 54 yards on nine carries, all in the first half.