Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

SPORTS>>Billies to put Bears’ 3-game streak to test

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Two teams that started the season off in the exact wrong direction but which have since made dramatic U-turns will battle for first place on Friday night at Bill Blackwood Field when Sylvan Hills hosts Monticello for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

The Billies (5-2) defied the preseason hype and promptly started off 0-2, then scrapped their experiment with the Spread and returned to head coach Van Paschal’s signature Double Wing attack. The result: Five consecutive wins and a 4-0 start to the 5A-Southeast race.

The Bears lost three straight after a season-opening win, and struggled to settle on an offensive scheme through those first four weeks. After a dismal 21-7 loss to White Hall to open league play, head coach Jim Withrow made his own alterations in the offense. Scrapping the shotgun and focusing on a split-back offense around the potent duo of running backs Lawrence Hodges and Juliean Broner, the Bears (4-3) are winners of their past three games and 3-1 in the conference.

The Billies served notice of their resurrection two weeks ago with a stunningly easy 41-14 win over Beebe. Sylvan Hills’ rise has come about more quietly, their most impressive win coming on the road at Crossett on Tanner Janssen’s last-second 27-yard field goal.

Withrow heaps lots of praise on the No. 5 Billies, but with his Bears playing as well as they have all year, he likes his chances this Friday.

“I don’t care who we’re playing, we have a chance to win,” he said. “Heck, we’ve got MORE than a chance to win. We have to take care of the ball, can’t have penalties. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes.

“But we figure (Monticello) is in the same boat. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes for them, either.”

The Billies are big and fast on both sides of the ball. On offense, it all centers around quarterback Ty Ferrell, who Withrow calls the best athlete in the conference. But Ferrell, who has been plagued by an ankle injury all season, re-injured it in the Billies’ win over White Hall last week and is questionable for Friday’s game.

How good is Ferrell? He merely rushed for 209 yards against a stout Beebe defense … on a bum ankle. But his potential absence hardly allows Withrow to breathe any easier, what with backup quarterback Joe Carmichael in the wings. Carmichael was the Monticello signal caller through the first two games of the season when the Billies ran out of the Spread.

“I’ve never seen a team with two quarterbacks as good as those two,” Withrow said. “We were watching the film (from the White Hall game) and I didn’t even really notice he was the backup until he started throwing the ball. We thought, golly, he throws it well, too. I think maybe what they lose in speed (with Ferrell out) they gain in throwing. And they don’t lose a lot of speed. Carmichael is a really good athlete.”

Paschal agrees that the Billies don’t lose a lot with Carmichael at the helm.

“He’s a good, solid quarterback and a 4.0 (GPA) kid,” he said. “He’s a big kid and plays defensive end for us. He’s been quarterbacking here since he was in ninth grade.”

But the uncertainty makes Withrow’s defensive scheming that much more difficult against a team that isn’t only defined by its quarterbacks. They have a slate of big, solid running backs, led by Cedric Leonard, Lance Ridgell, Trey Hawkins and more.

“To be honest with you, I’d rather get to their third quarterback,” Withrow said with a laugh when asked whether he’d rather face Ferrell or Carmichael. “It’s hard to know what to prepare for so you have to prepare for both. You have to prepare for about 35 different scenarios.”

But the Sylvan Hills defense has held its own against just about everybody this season, including in early season tussles with 7A powers Cabot and North Little Rock.

“They are very quick on defense,” Paschal said. “They move well laterally.”

And the Bears are as healthy on that side of the ball as they’ve been all season. Linebacker Michael Robinson is back in stride after missing the first three weeks of the season. Both he and Nick Brewer are getting stronger each week, Withrow said, despite continuing to play with lingering injuries. Quarterback Jordan Spears is expected to play after suffering a knee bruise in the second quarter last week.

Broner and Hodges had big games for the third consecutive week. Broner rushed for 150 yards while Hodges added 76.

“Their running backs impress me,” Paschal said. “They don’t go down easy and their quarterback is pretty heady.”

Hooten’s has made the Billies a 9-point favorite, as predicted by Withrow.

“We’ll probably be big underdogs,” he said. “But I can tell you, in this field house, nobody thinks we’re underdogs at all. We’re playing with a lot of momentum and confidence.

“This is a big game. Number one, it’s homecoming. Two, we’ve won three in a row. And three, we’re playing for first place. If we can win this week, we can really set ourselves up for some good things.”