Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

SPORTS>>Home, sweet home on line

Leader sports editor

It’s really pretty simple. The difference between a win and a loss between Beebe and Sylvan Hills this Thursday night at “Bro” Erwin Stadium is the difference between a first-round home game against Blytheville in the 5A playoffs and a long bus ride to take on either one-loss Batesville or one-loss West Helena.

“Our goal all season has been to get a home playoff game,” said Beebe head coach John Shannon. “It’s been a few years since we had one here. This is big.”

Sylvan Hills has been chasing the 5A-Southeast leaders from the get-go, ever since it opened league play with a dismal loss at home to White Hall. In the long run, that loss means little as the 4-2 Bears would have had to beatthe 6-1 Badgers on Thursday either way to capture the No. 2 seed.

The Bears, 5-4 overall, bounced back from that White Hall loss to win four of five and, according to head coach Jim Withrow, played better each week along the way.

“I think it’s been part of the maturation process,” he said. “We have 10 seniors who have done a fantastic job as leaders. And as young as we are, the young kids are really getting after it. The whole team is playing with toughness.”

Toughness is something that was strangely lacking in the Badgers, beginning with a Week 3 loss to Vilonia and continuing through a Week 6 loss to conference champion Monticello. Shannon said he’s hard-pressed to explain, only that he’s glad the toughness that was the trademark of his team in his first season last year appears to have returned.

“It was pretty frustrating for a while,” said Shannon, whose Badgers improved to 7-2 overall with a decidedly hard-hitting 34-14 win at White Hall on Friday. “All summer, we were physical in the weight room and in two-a-days and in the first two games of the year. Then it was like we forgot how to hit. I’m glad it’s back.”

Shannon said his team hit as hard as it has hit all season against White Hall, a week after playing nearly as physically in a win over Mills. The Badger defense kept both outstanding Bulldog running backs to under 100 yards on Friday. Both were averaging 100 yards per game.

“Take away a 52-yard run and our numbers were really good,” Shannon said. “It was the best-hitting game of the year. We were laying some pretty good licks.”

The Bears laid a pretty good licking on hapless McClellan last week, scoring 28 first-quarter points en route to a 42-8 win.

Lawrence Hodges rumbled for 166 yards and three touchdowns in a little less than one-and-a-half quarters. Backfield mate Juliean Broner added 118 yards.

Thursday night’s game will be a battle of contrasting styles to some extent, though both teams will look to run the ball a lot.

Sylvan Hills began the season as a balanced offense, but threw only two passes a week ago. Beebe is big, while Sylvan Hills is undersized, but quick.

“They’ll play a 5-2 with some wrinkles,” Withrow said of Beebe’s defense. “But you know they’ll play physical. We’re going to have to bring it up front, be physical up front and crank it up another notch.”

Shannon said he’s impressed by the Bears’ offense since Withrow switched from a shotgun to a split-back set after the White Hall game.

“They are playing well since they changed,” he said. “They finally have their rhythm running the football. Their defense has been good all year. They’re quick as all get-out. They don’t look real big, but they try to shoot gaps and crowd the line of scrimmage and get you confused. We feel like if we don’t turn the ball over, we may have a chance to pop a big one.”

For Beebe, of course, it will be a whole lot of fullback Sammy Williams, quite a bit of halfback Brandon Pursell and maybe a little more of halfback Luke Gardner, who, according to Shannon, had his best game of the year. Gardner rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown and caught a pass for another score.

In the East conference, which will square off against the Southeast to begin the playoffs, West Helena (8-0-1), which played 6A’s top-ranked West Memphis Blue Devils to a tie in Week 1, travels to 9-0 Batesville to decide the 5A East. Meanwhile, Blytheville has sewn up the No. 3 seed and waits to find out if it will drive to Beebe or to Sylvan Hills on Nov. 15.

For Withrow, the Bears are pretty much where he hoped they’d be when the season began.

“We were disappointed with the (21-7 loss to White Hall),” he said. “But we kept playing and playing and we’re pleased with where we’re at. I just think we need to keep doing what we’re doing and crank it up a notch from here on out. It’s a playoff type deal and we have to have a playoff intensity.”