Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SPORTS >> Cheers beat tears for scrappy Lonoke

For the most part, Lonoke enjoyed its championship visit to Little Rock.

Leader sports editor

The Lonoke Jackrabbits didn’t look like the dead team walking I’d read, and written, about in the runup to Saturday’s 4A state championship game.

And they didn’t look any worse for wear after their 56-20 loss to the almighty Shiloh Christian Saints at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

In their Thursday workout at the stadium and during post game ceremonies Saturday, the Jackrabbits simply looked like a bunch of young football players happy to be in their 15th game of the year.

This, after all, was a team that was teetering on the brink of irrelevancy earlier this season. The Jackrabbits, under first-year coach Doug Bost, were 2-3 before starting the nine-game winning streak that got them to War Memorial.

Lonoke had to win three of its four playoff games on the road, gambled on taking two intentional safeties in a playoff victory at Warren and was counted out before it even got to Osceola, where Lonoke posted a dominant, 28-7 victory in the semifinals.

So it’s no wonder the Jackrabbits looked relaxed as they strolled onto War Memorial’s turf for their allotted, two-hour practice last week.

A few players let loose exuberant howls at the cobalt sky, their breath hanging in the air like dialogue balloons.

As the workout progressed and they warmed to their jobs, some Jackrabbits began to jettison the hoodies and extra sweatshirts they had worn under their pads for warmth.

The most important issue of the day seemed to be whether or not the team would be allowed to wear its home purple jerseys to the pep rally, while on the sideline the Jackrabbits even indulged in some gallows humor.

“Eastern Michigan was not an opponent that should have been on our schedule,” one player said as the talk turned to the Arkansas Razorbacks.

There was a pause. Someone mumbled something.

“Yeah, they should have played Shiloh, maybe you’re right,” was the response.

But the Jackrabbits weren’t about to let anybody— not even Arkansas — stand in for them in their state final appearance, even if it was against the mighty Saints, who won their sixth championship and second in a row.

Any young player, especially one without college football prospects — the case with most of the Jackrabbits — would rather play in a one-sided championship loss than not play in a championship at all.

“Most people said we were going to be mercy-ruled in the first quarter,” said senior running back Brandon Smith, highlighting one of the night’s moral victories. “Instead, we kept them from scoring in the first quarter.”

Several centuries ago, it seems, I played for a team not unlike Lonoke. Well, minus the winning record.

Our little town of 1,600 sat in the south Illinois cornfields. If we had 40 players, counting freshmen, it was a banner turnout. If we won three games, it was a banner year.

There were no Shiloh Christians on our schedule, but we did line up every year to take our 20 licks from public school powers like Marshall, Arcola, Casey and Oblong — yes Oblong, which, on one frigid October night gave us a well-rounded beating in the vicinity of 70 to nothing.

I’m not kidding.

We had no mercy rules up on the Midwestern prairie in those days, and I remember getting crushed on a kickoff late in that game as my blockers were pretty much exiting stage left. I looked up in time to see my opponent’s helmet filling my view like the approaching moon in the window of an Apollo spacecraft.

And I knew even then I wouldn’t trade any of it, not even the pain. I would rather have lost 10 games every year than not played at all.

That may be what people don’t get in the public-versus-private school debate, and we won’t resolve that debate here.

Someone smarter than I will have to figure out how to address the fact Shiloh has more resources, deeper pockets and a talent base restricted not by geographic borders but by the willingness of parents to pay tuition.

I only know that Lonoke looked like a team happy to have been one of two left in 4A, even if the other team was Shiloh Christian.

There were more smiles than tears in a post game that was more party that post mortem.

The Jackrabbits had a laugh as they chanted, “Public school champs!” following the team handshake, and they celebrated wildly when Lonoke’s Tyler Breashears was announced as the winner of the Burlsworth Award for best offensive lineman.

Breashear’s teammates were so caught up in pounding him on the helmet and shoulder pads he could barely get loose to accept his trophy.

For Shiloh, it was yet another knee and a prayer as the Saints knelt with the ball, ran out the clock and huddled up to thank God.

For Lonoke, it was back to the grain elevators and silos of eastern Lonoke County. But what a trip it had been.

Good game? Maybe not quite. Good times? Definitely.

“It was still fun for us,” Smith said. “We enjoyed ourselves. We were just happy to be one of the last two teams competing for a state championship.”