SPORTS >> Harding Academy taking postseason show on the road
Everyone has to leave home sooner or later.
Harding Academy plays its first road game of the 3A playoffs with a state championship berth on the line when it travels to
Fountain Lake on Friday night.
In a simple twist of the postseason bracket, Fountain Lake, the 5-3A West champion, wound up with an upper berth, making it the host team for 2-3A champion Harding Academy in the semifinals.
“We’re the same seed, they just go with the team on top,” Harding Academy coach Roddy Mote said. “Fountain Lake’s on the top side of the bracket. If it would have been a two seed that we were playing this week, then we would have had home-field advantage.”
For better or for worse, Harding Academy has played its last game at home in First Security Stadium, which it shares with neighbor Harding University. That state final has been moved to Dec. 19 at Estes Stadium on the Central Arkansas University campus.
A legal wrangle over Lamar’s eligibility for the 3A playoffs delayed the schedule by one week and made Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium unavailable because of planned renovations.
“You don’t really worry about it,” Mote said of the road game. “You just do it and you just go. So be it. Being on the road or here, you get to this point in the year it really doesn’t make any difference.”
In its two home playoffs, Harding Academy won two very different games.
In beating Paris 43-13 on Nov. 27, the Wildcats grabbed five fumbles and enacted the sportsmanship/timing rule in which the clock runs almost continuously after a team builds a 35-point lead.
Last week against Harrisburg, Harding Academy needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a defensive stop to put away the Hornets 20-12.
“You want to be better each week,” Mote said. “Obviously there’s some things we didn’t do as well on Friday that we’ve done better early in the season. Obviously I don’t think we threw and caught the ball very well. That’s just part of it. Sometimes you have a week like that.”
Standout quarterback Seth Keese had just 68 passing yards and an interception in the Wildcats’ spread offense. But he made up for that with 185 yards rushing and passed for the go-ahead touchdown with 9:21 left, then added the 37-yard rushing touchdown with 1:59 to go, forcing the Hornets to try to go the distance for a touchdown and a conversion just to tie.
“Obviously you can’t turn the ball over and we did that,” Mote said. “When you get down to the red zone you need to get points and there was a couple times we didn’t do that.”
But the victory revealed a truth about Harding Academy that some opponents have overlooked — the Wildcats, despite their reputation as a spread team, can run.
“Each week coaches prepare, there’s tendencies that coaches look at,” Mote said. “I know that we’ve run the ball in previous weeks and I felt like we ran it effectively at times Friday. And of course we’ve thrown the ball effectively at times. We’ve been pretty balanced all year.
“Sometimes it appears a little lopsided in favor of the run or the pass.”
Keese pointed out after Friday’s victory that the Wildcats have gained 200 yards a game on the ground this season and said he hoped opponents continue to view Harding Academy as primarily a passing team.
Either way, it helps to have a player like Keese, a junior, running the offense, Mote said.
“Seth, he’s a very good high school football player,” Mote said. “He’s done a great job for us. It’s great having him around.
He’s made great strides over the last year. It’s a big difference between a sophomore and a junior. I’m glad he’s on our team.
I’m glad he’s a Wildcat.”
Keese, who had 304 all-purpose yards against Paris, also is a hard-nosed defensive back who had 18 tackles in that game, Mote said.
“He’s a very aggressive player,” Mote said. “He’s got good instincts, plays fast on the field. He’s as good a defensive player as he is offensively.
“I think he understands the game. I think all these kids do, as much Play Station 2 or Xbox they play, they know as much football as any of us, really.”
The Wildcats will face another balanced team in Fountain Lake, which reached the state championship last year and lost to Charleston. But the Cobras find their balance in a very different set — the wing T led by quarterback David Gray.
“Basically it’s run first, pass second,” Mote said. “They’re very good at both. Defensively they’re very aggressive and have great team speed. They’re just a very good football team. You’re doing something right if you get to this point.”