SPORTS>>Bears travel to top-ranked West Helena
Leader sports editor
The Sylvan Hills Bears are paying the ultimate price for their second-half implosion last Friday night at Beebe — a trip to No. 2 ranked West Helena to open 5A state playoffs.
That’s No. 2 overall. In Class 5A, the immensely talented Cougars are No. 1, and by a long shot at that.
Sylvan Hills was within an extra point of tying the game early in the second half last Friday night, but after the kick was blocked, the Bears never recovered and went on to fall, 35-19, to the Badgers.
“We just didn’t look like we were ready to play,” said Sylvan Hills head coach Jim Withrow. “There’s blame everywhere. The defense could have played a whole lot better, a lot more physical. We looked slow off the ball and a lot of that has to do with, we’re a young team. But if you’ve played 10 games, you ought to know b etter by now.
“We just never looked like we were in sync.”
The Bears turned it over four times and had another drive stall at the Beebe 5-yard line. One of those turnovers — a fumbled punt — led directly to a Beebe score.
West Helena, meanwhile, posted another in a series of impressive wins, shutting out a Batesville team that came in averaging 32 points a game.
“The defense has been playing great,” said West Helena head coach Russell Smith, whoseCougars have won nine of 10 games, with only a Week 3 tie with top-ranked West Memphis keeping them from being perfect. “We are loaded on that side of the ball. We have nine seniors and they’re all experienced seniors.”
West Helena was picked fourth preseason in the 5A East, but its season-opening 46-29 win over Pulaski Academy served notice that the Cougars were not a middle-of-the-pack team.
“I actually told the reporter that I honestly thought we had a chance to win a conference championship,” Smith said.
The Cougars demonstrated in Week 3 that, along with lots of talent, they had plenty of character, too, coming back from 14 down to top-ranked West Memphis and forging a 14-14 tie with the powerful Blue Devils. That game represents the lone “blemish” on either of those team’s records.
“That was the turnaround for us,” said Smith. “We regrouped at halftime and showed a lot of character against a great West Memphis team.”
It hasn’t been close since as the Cougars have outscored their conference opponents 322-62. Last week’s 14-0 win over Batesville was their only victory in the conference by fewer than 26 points.
How do they do it? With dominating defense, obviously. The Cougar secondary has picked off 31 passes this season. And they have a multi-faceted offensive attack led by University of Arkansas signee Turell Williams, a 6-2, 215-pound tailback who rushed for 159 yards last week and is closing in on 1,000 yards on the season despite missing two games with injury.
“He has 4.5 speed,” Smith said. “He can move.”
The Cougars also have an experienced senior quarterback in Deondre Johnson, who threw for 1,400 yards and ran for nearly 1,100 as a junior. The 5-10, 165-pound Johnson is also getting some looks from the Razorbacks despite being undersized.
The Cougars have another speedy up-and-comer in Antonio Hughes, who possesses 4.4 speed. But it is Williams who carries the load.
Johnson has a bevy of able junior receivers, led by small and speedy Jawun North, who had six catches against Batesville.
Filling out the receiving corps are Jonathan Johnson and Kyrin Burrell.
“We really want to run first,” Smith said. “But we have a balanced attack.”
Sylvan Hills’ undersized but overachieving defense will face its toughest test yet. The Bears played solidly in the first half against Beebe, but wore down in the second half when the Badgers kept the ball for 19 of 24 minutes. Beebe went on to rush for 325 yards.
But Withrow said there’s one thing you can always count on with Sylvan Hills teams in the playoffs —they’ll be ready to play.
“Hopefully, we’ll come back with a good week of practice,” Withrow said. “We need to play well. (West Helena) has speed everywhere. Honest to goodness, they remind me of North Little Rock and what they don’t have in size (compared to NLR), they make up for with speed.”
That should give the Bears some reason for hope after they played North Little Rock to a 1-point loss in Week 3 when a 2-point conversion failed. Withrow said they’ll have to avoid turnovers and keep from giving up the long play.
“They’ve thrived on turnovers,” Withrow said. “We’ve got to make them go on long drives and have to have long sustained drives of our own and eat up the clock.”
If Broner can’t play, the onus will fall more heavily on running back Lawrence Hodges and on quarterback Jordan Spears.
Spears was picked off three times last week, but threw for 177 yards and three touchdowns. In Broner’s place would be Nate Clark, Greg Atchison and Jeramiah Murphy.
Most people probably already have counted out the Bears, and with the Cougars dominating so thoroughly, it’s easy to understand how they might. But Withrow has yet to back down from a fight all season and said his Bears don’t plan on doing so now.
“You either win or go home,” he said. “We don’t want it to end and we’re going to do everything we can to keep it going for another week.”