SPORTS >>Wildcats recover, beat Apaches
Leader football writer
SEARCY – After stumbling their way through a horrid first half, the Harding Academy Wildcats gave the upstart Pottsville Apaches a big dose of reality in the final two quarters here at First Security Stadium on Friday night. Harding Academy scored 41 points in the second half, overcoming a 21-6 halftime deficit to advance in the Class AAA state playoffs with a 47-28 victory.
It was the first playoff game ever for Pottsville, which finished the season at 7-4. Harding Academy, which improved to 9-2, will travel to meet Shiloh Christian, the top-ranked team in Class AAA, next Friday night in Springdale.
Shiloh Christian eliminated Harding Academy, 40-7, last season in a state semifinal game en route to the Class AAA state title. The Saints had a first-round bye on Friday night.
Trailing 21-6, Harding Academy junior quarterback Matt Lincoln completed 17-of-19 second-half passes for 167 yards and led the Wildcats to six touchdowns in their final seven possessions. Lincoln opened the second half with six completions to four different receivers, setting up J.T. Fisher’s eight-yard scoring run. Lincoln then hit Chase Gentry for a 2-point conversion to cut the Apaches’ lead to 21-14.
Pottsville, the third-seed from the 4-3A Conference, failed to pick up a first down and the Wildcats began another march. Dee Gibbs’ leaping grab of a 28-yard Lincoln pass set up Ty Finley’s 15-yard run. With his placekicker Robbie Dillard sidelined, Harding Academy head coach Tommy Shoemaker elected to go for two. Lincoln’s pass to Lance Carr was broken up, leaving HA trailing, 21-20, with 4:17 left in the third quarter.
Pottsville wasn’t quite finished, however. The Apaches used a 37-yard run by Jonathan Huffman to set up a 22-yard scoring strike from quarterback Josh Falls to tight end Chace Warren. Ory Lee’s PAT kick pushed the Apaches’ lead to 28-20 with 3:22 left in the quarter.
It would be the last spark for upset-minded Pottsville, though. The Harding Academy defense, which played on its heels against a tough running game in the first half, upped the intensity to start the third quarter and held the Apaches to just 94 second-half yards.
“I think us getting the quick score to start the second half really helped the defense,” Shoemaker said. “That pumped everybody up – especially the defense. We knew we had to score to start the second half.”
Lincoln’s only mistake of the second half came on the Wildcats’ next possession when his errant pass was picked off by Huffman. Three plays later, though, Harding Academy’s Braxton Bennett recovered his second fumble of the night.
Consecutive passes to Gentry, who finished with 9 catches for 121 yards, set up Fisher’s second TD run, from 10 yards out. Lincoln scrambled for the 2-point conversion, tying the game at 28 with 11:06 to play.
After another Pottsville punt was forced, the Wildcats used a 12-play drive to set up Finley’s second TD run, a 3-yarder with 5:08 left for a 34-28 lead.
Moments later, Gibbs fell on a poor Pottsville pitch and Gentry ran in from 26 yards on the first play from scrimmage, pushing the lead to 40-28. Gentry picked up another rushing score with 1:43 to play after the Wildcats took over after holding the Apaches on 4th-and-15 from their own 10.
“Chase made some big plays for us,” Shoemaker said. “It’s the first year he’s ever played football and he has really come on for us.”
After a dominating first half performance, Pottsville coach Bryan Rust saw the handwriting on the wall when the Wildcats’ offense hit high gear.
“We just wore down,” Rust said. “We’ve done this a few times in big games this year. We don’t have the type of offense where you can turn the ball over and stay in games.”
Rust had high praise for his team’s big season, though.
“Our guys came a long way this year,” Rust said. “We started before the season started talking about going to the playoffs. It’s something these kids have dreamed about and they accomplished that. They can be proud.”
The Apaches gave their fans plenty to be proud of in the first half. Unfazed by Harding Academy’s playoff tradition, Pottsville controlled the ball almost the entire first quarter, allowing the Wildcats just 10 offensive plays.
On their second possession, the Apaches worked the clock methodically and moved 50 yards in 11 plays before fullback Jacob Irwin bulled his way into the end zone from six yards for a 7-0 lead.
Harding Academy cut the lead to 7-6 two possessions later when Lincoln hit Finley on a 40-yard touchdown pass. Midway through the second quarter, Pottsville’s Mark Scott batted a Lincoln pass into the air, where teammate Justin Robertson grabbed it and went 35 yards for a touchdown and a 14-6 lead.
Following another Wildcat punt, the Apaches pushed the lead to 21-6 when Falls connected with Will Vodrazka for 25 yards, then ran the final 18 to score with 1:21 left in the half.
“They ran us up and down the field in the first half,” Shoemaker said. “They were ready to play.”
Shoemaker’s task now is one he’s familiar with. The Wildcats have faced Shiloh Christian teams in the playoffs on two other occasions and haven’t come close to beating the Saints yet.
“It’s a great challenge and we’re looking forward to it,” he said. “We’re going to go there expecting to win.”
Lincoln finished 22-of-33 for 267 yards for Harding Academy. He completed passes to 10 different receivers. Gentry was also the team’s leading rusher, carrying 5 times for 48 yards.