SPORTS>>It’s Wildcats vs. Eagles in battle for first place
Leader sports editor
It may be the most critical contest of the regular season and a conference title may be on the line, but Harding Academy coach Roddy Mote is treating this week’s battle with Mayflower as just another game on the schedule.
The undefeated Wildcats have faced few challenges in outscoring their opponents 231-86 on their way to a 6-0 start. Their season-opening 30-15 win over Pocahontas may have come as close as any to providing even a hint of drama.
But a challenge awaits this Friday night at First Security Stadium. Mayflower brings a 5-game winning streak and a 3-0 record in the 2-3A Conference into the game. The Eagles (5-1 overall) have nearly identical numbers to the Wildcats in outscoring their foes 235-89.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
The Wildcats are coming off another ho-hum 39-14 road win over previously unbeaten Barton, while Mayflower dispatched Rose Bud, 60-16, last Friday. Harding Academy and Mayflower sit atop the conference standings so first place will be on the line.
“We’re going to practice and prepare like we’ve done every week,” Mote said. “The game may have great implications, but we’re treating it like it’s the Week 7 game. This game won’t define our season.”
That said, Mote recognizes that the Eagles present an array of challenges no other foe has through the first six weeks. It all starts with DeShaun Bagby, a speedy tailback, who ran for 134 yards on just five carries against Rose Bud. He also caught three passes totaling 127 yards and two touchdowns. But to focus on Bagby is to allow all the other Mayflower weapons to do significant damage.
The Eagles run out of the Spread behind junior quarterback Jordan Dycus, who split time at the position last season. His emergence has made the difference from last year’s 7-5 club, according to Mote.
“That I think sets them apart from last year, is their quarterback play,” he said. “He runs the offense so well and he can throw and run.”
Harding Academy beat the Eagles 34-14 a year ago.
When Dycus isn’t handing off or dumping passes to Bagby, he’ll either be giving the ball to 270-pound fullback Gavin Pace or looking for senior wide receiver John Dale Willis. And all of this takes place behind a massive offensive line, which features as many as five players over 260 pounds.
And they’re a veteran team with nearly 25 seniors.
Mote said he’s not concerned that his team has yet to face a squad this big and this fast all season.
“We played a full game against Pocahontas,” he said. “Arkansas Baptist was with us for about three quarters. But going into the fourth quarter, we’ve felt we were in control in all of our games.
“But I can’t control the success of our opponents, or how much they’ve struggled. I just challenge our kids to compete the best they can from week to week.”
While Mote said he’s been pleased with the energy and enthusiasm his team has displayed this year, they’ve also maintained an even keel emotionally. That could be a factor when the Wildcats face such a high-quality opponent.
But for all the focus on Mayflower’s weaponry, the Wildcats’ offense, composed of a lot of new faces this season, has been every bit as impressive behind sophomore quarterback Seth Keese, who has completed 21 of his last 26 passes for 351 yards and six touchdowns. And running back Ty Finley has emerged as a potent running threat in his first season as a feature back.
Finley rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns last week. Mote said offseason work has made all the difference.
“Ty has been phenomenal in the weight room and that’s what’s separated him from last year,” Mote said. “It’s evident to anybody that looks at him. He’s a lot stronger and is running with a lot more confidence. He’s been a great leader for us, too.”
Mote, in his first year at the helm, said the 6-0 start is not a surprise.
“We had high expectations,” he said. “We always have high expectations here. We felt at the first of the year that the important thing was to get the kids in the right place, do the little things right and pay attention to details. That’s what we’ve done.”
Everyone is expected to play on Friday, though Keese continues to suffer from an ankle injury he suffered against England.
Wide receiver and backup quarterback Matt Lincoln is coming along from a shoulder injury, though is not at 100 percent.