Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SPORTS >> Championship eludes seniors, but memories are preserved

Michael Nelson hands the ball to Brandon Smith in Saturday’s championship.

Leader sports editor

Michael Nelson was one of the last to take off his helmet.

Nelson joined his teammates in a hearty rendition of the Lonoke fight song following Shiloh Christian’s 56-20 victory over the Jackrabbits in the 4A state championship at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.

But Nelson kept his helmet firmly in place, maybe to hide tears, maybe to keep from admitting his high school football career had finally come to a close.

Further up the field, Lonoke running back Brandon Smith was answering the umpteenth question about his 140 rushing yards and a touchdown in a performance that, it is hoped, will earn Smith yet more attention from college recruiters.

The two are probably headed in different directions in their post-high school careers, but together they were instrumental in getting Lonoke to where it stood, on the artificial surface at War Memorial Stadium as one of the last two 4A teams standing.

“It’s exciting,” Smith said. “It wasn’t a perfect ending but I still had fun. I was gladI was here to play one last game.”

The undersized Nelson, 5-7, in his first years as the varsity starter, found an added dimension as a runner this year, and if his footwork hadn’t opened up the offense, who knows if Lonoke would have gone as far?

Smith, already getting offers from NCAA Division II schools and flirting with the possibility of playing major college football, has been a mainstay most of the season and without his yards, again, the Jackrabbits might have missed the championship boat.

“I knew what kind of capabilities they had,” said Lonoke coach Doug Bost of his upperclassmen. “And here they are at the state championship game. Great group of seniors.”

Nelson was beating himself up for five interceptions thrown against an aggressive, smothering Shiloh Christian defense.

“We knew we had to be balanced to open up the pass,” said Nelson, 5-19-5 for 136 yards and a touchdown. “We ran the ball pretty successful and we had a couple big plays. We got down there and I threw a pick and, really, they’re a heck of a team, they fly to the ball.”

It was Nelson’s 666 rushing yards and seven touchdowns that may have made the difference in Lonoke’s season. The Jackrabbits sat at 2-3 in the early going and were on the verge of falling apart as a team.

But a return to basics and Nelson’s reliance on his feet, to go with his 2,062 passing yards and 19 scores, helped open things up as the Jackrabbits began the nine-game winning streak that got them to the championship game.

“All the seniors are leaders, not just one, but many leaders,” Nelson said. “We got the team together, we said ‘Hey, let’s just go out and have fun.’ That’s what we started doing. We got on a winning streak and people started believing.”

Against Osceola, in a 28-7 victory in the semifinals, Nelson was superb, with 72 rushing yards and a 20-of-39 passing performance with four touchdown passes to four different receivers.

Nelson’s new dimension kept teams from crowding the box against Smith, an 1,800-yard rusher who proved fast enough to beat Shiloh Christian around the end several times Saturday night.

Not that Smith couldn’t pick up some hard yards on his own. It’s one of the reasons Henderson State, and the other Division II schools, have shown healthy interest and he and Bost are hoping some SEC schools follow suit.

“He’s going to go somewhere. He’s too good not to,” Bost said.

In the meantime, Smith and his classmates found plenty to take with them from Saturday’s game.

“We didn’t back down,” he said. “We didn’t lay down like most people thought we would.”