Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

SPORTS >> Bears to open year, take on a familiar foe

Leader sportswriter

Last year’s season-opening meeting between the Malvern Leopards and Sylvan Hills Bears came down to the final minute. The Bears had the Leopards down six points and pinned against their goal line, and time and luck ran out on them.

Sylvan Hills coach Jim Withrow can still recall that game. He can also attest to the potential for another close game this year.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Withrow said. “They’ve returned a lot from last year — we’ve returned a lot from last year. It will probably be close again this year.”

Leopards coach John Fogleman, now in his third season, has focused much of his team’s attention on defense this year. That has included taking sure-handed receiver Trent Bryant and making him a defensive specialist.

While Withrow would like to wrap things up early Friday, Fogleman doesn’t mind the possibility of another close one.

“I hope so — that means we have a chance to win,” Fogleman said. “We expect it to be that way. The big question mark for us is our offensive line. We’ve had some injuries, so we’re trying to do some patchwork there.”

For Withrow, keeping his talented squad of fewer than 40 players healthy is the priority. The Bears escaped a pair of tough scrimmages last week against private school powerhouses Little Rock Christian and Pulaski Academy with no injuries. With three games on tap before 5A-Southeast Conference play begins, the Bears will proceed with caution in the early going this season.

“It changes the way you approach things to an extent,” Withrow said. “When you get to a certain yard line, you know you want to put your best guys in there. It also gives people an opportunity to play that can help you down the road.”

The defensive line is a cause of concern for Withrow. The low numbers have hurt the Bears the most there, leaving a limited number of subs.

Withrow has been trying senior Stephan Kettle in the line along with junior Michael Finney, 5-10, 170 pounds, and Willie Johnson, 5-5, 155, in hopes of developing some sort of rotation.

“For this time of the season, we’re in relatively good shape,” Withrow said. “It’s going to be harder for us as coaches to manage the game better than what we’ve done before. But not giving up any points to PA and only 14 to Christian was a good first step.

And the things we did wrong are correctable.”

Fogleman said he hopes to combat the speed of Sylvan Hills with a tough defense anchored by 6-0, 260-pound senior linebacker Kevin Bell, who led the Leopards with 72 tackles last season. Classmate Osha Johnson, 6-2, 195, and junior Grady Ollison, 6-4, 240, are two more big men Fogleman hopes will be a factor in shutting down the Bears’ multiple attack.

“We’re probably not as fast as what we’ve been for the last couple of years, but we feel like we’re getting better,” Fogleman said. “Our concern is their skill kids — they jump out at you. We hope to compensate for speed with the play of our kids. We’re a lot better off defensively than we were last year. That’s been our biggest improvement.”

Malvern has offensive threats of its own with junior receiver James King, who had 36 catches for 650 yards and 11 touchdowns his sophomore season. Fogleman is also looking for big things from junior running back Dontail Henson.

Although his first job is now defense, Bryant will also see some time at receiver on Friday.

“There will be three big keys for this game,” Withrow said. “Not giving up the big plays, having a good kicking game and fourth-quarter conditioning. If we can do all of those things, we’ll be in pretty good shape.”