Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

SPORTS >> Underdog role suits Lonoke

Lonoke’s Michael Nelson prepares to hand off to Brandon Smith behind a block from Dustin Rhodes early this season.

By JASON KING

Leader sportswriter

The Shiloh Christian Saints will most likely take a charter bus to Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium for Saturday’s 4A state championship game instead of marching in according to the traditional melody.

Whichever mode of transportation they use, the Saints will come in as heavy favorites over Lonoke.

The Jackrabbits (11-3) earned their first trip to War Memorial since 1994 on Friday when they knocked off Osceola 28-7 in the semifinals. It was the third straight playoff game in which Lonoke was viewed by prognosticators and message-board patrons as the team on its way home, making this week the end of a one-month cycle Lonoke has spent as the underdog.

But that’s okay with first-year ’Rabbits coach Doug Bost, who encouraged everyone to keep it coming.

“Don’t pick us to win. We’re going to prove people wrong,” Bost said. “A lot of people are going to say Lonoke didn’t deserve to be here. I just think that’s crap right there. We’ve been on the road and we’ve beaten two No. 2 seeds and a No. 1 at Osceola.”

Jackrabbits senior quarterback Michael Nelson said being picked to lose week after week in the playoffs does not bother him and his teammates. In fact, it serves as a source of inspiration.

“We’ve embraced it,” Nelson said. “I mean, we’re a little ticked off that they still have us ranked third in 4A with only two teams left, but we’ve fed off of that since the playoffs started. We’re happy to wear all white and be the road opponent.”

The Saints (12-1) almost saw their bid to repeat as state champions go by the wayside two weeks ago when Nashville stormed to a 28-0 lead in the first half of their quarterfinal game. But Shiloh came back to win 51-49, and earned another trip to Little Rock with a 48-7 pummeling of previously unbeaten Bald Knob in last week’s semifinals.

It is the fourth-consecutive state championship appearance for Shiloh Christian, which has six state titles overall since 1998.

But as well as the Jackrabbits have responded in their run as the underdogs, Bost is hoping for one more upset.

“That’s kind of how we look at it,” Bost said. “You’re going on the road, we’ve been down, we’ve had to hang on and win.

There’s been a lot of stuff thrown at these young men and they’ve responded to every situation.”

Adapting was a key for Lonoke in its victory over Osceola last week. The Seminoles’ defense, notorious for stopping the run, keyed on senior running back Brandon Smith and held him to fewer than 30 yards.

But Nelson responded with a career night, completing 20 of 39 passes for 347 yards and all four Lonoke touchdowns, and led the ’Rabbits in rushing with 72 yards.

It was an improvement over the way Nelson started the season.

“The first two games, I think he had 53 yards passing against Robinson and he might have had 73 it seemed like,” Bost said. “I think in those three losses people started stacking the boxes thinking we were a running team.

“He has really come on strong as far as seeing defenses and making plays for us.”

Each of Nelson’s touchdowns last week were to different receivers, plus a successful two-point conversion pass to Todd Hobson to give him a score with each of the five receivers used.

“We can spread people out now,” Bost said. “When there’s running lanes, he takes off and runs. He may be little, 5-7, but he runs over folks. I really don’t like that. I tell him he needs to hook slide, but he hasn’t mastered the hook slide yet.”

Last week’s triumph over Osceola marked nine straight victories for the Jackrabbits after starting their 2-4A Conference season with back-to-back losses to Heber Springs and Bald Knob.

It has been another dominant year for the Saints, who began the season with a 37-36, come-from-behind victory over Louisiana private school Evangel Christian.

Shiloh Christian’s only loss came in Week 3 to 5A powerhouse Greenwood in a 54-51 shootout.

Since that game, Shiloh Christian outscored its 1-4A Conference opponents 295-63 to claim its 13th league title in school history.

The Saints have outscored opponents 579-268 for the season.

A playoff bid for Lonoke became questionable in Week 5 when the Jackrabbits were spanked 33-13 by eventual 2-4A Conference champions Bald Knob at their own homecoming, which also made their third straight loss.

But the ’Rabbits recovered the following week with a 40-0 shutout over Southside Batesville, and have been on the winning track since.

“It was frustrating,” said Bost. “I think they all thought we had a better team than what we were showing. But that happens when things don’t go right. Frustration comes out in people.

“We not only went back to focusing on fundamentals, but started trying to have fun in practice. We even cut down the practice time so they aren’t as long and drawn out. We’ve been running around having fun.”