SPORTS >> Wildcats put hit on Harrisburg
By TODD TRAUB
SEARCY — It was cold when the game started, but Harding Academy didn’t put it on ice until the fourth quarter.
Harding Academy overcame a 12-6 halftime deficit for a 20-12 victory over Harrisburg in the 3A state quarterfinals at First Security Stadium on Friday night.
As temperatures plummeted to near freezing, Wildcats quarterback Seth Keese completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Ford with 9:21 left in the game, then Keese ran 37 yards for a score with 1:59 left and the defense held on for the victory.
“You get down to eight teams, they’re all going to be pretty good,” Wildcats coach Roddy Mote said. “We knew it was going to be a tough ballgame. We just hung in there, we didn’t relax, we just kept playing.”
After thumping Paris 43-13 in the first round, Harding Academy found itself in a much tighter game Friday.
The Wildcats, down by six at halftime, grabbed a fumble to end the Hornets’ first possession of the second half, but Keese threw an interception. Harding Academy had another drive stall at the Harrisburg 15 after a holding penalty erased a touchdown, and the third quarter ended up scoreless.
But a short punt set the Wildcats up at the Harrisburg 50 in the closing seconds of the quarter, and Harding Academy went the distance in eight plays. Keese had completions of 8 yards to James Dillard and 7 yards to William Hardin before he found Ford for the touchdown.
“We played strong. Even though we were behind, we knew we could come back,” Keese said.
Joshua Spears, who missed a field goal in the first half, kicked the extra point to give the Wildcats their first lead since the first quarter.
“We haven’t kicked a lot of field goals but he’s done a great job here the last couple weeks with our point-after touchdowns,” Mote said. “You just don’t relax and he gets another chance and he’s able to hit the two PATs.”
Harrisburg drove to the Harding Academy 39, picking up a fourth down conversion along the way, but Dillard hit receiver Jake Streeter in the left flat for a 3-yard loss on third down, and a delay of game penalty and a pass breakup by Tyler Gentry stalled the Hornets’ drive, and Harrisburg chose to punt on fourth and 18 with 5:14 left.
“Obviously you want to use the clock to your advantage and that’s what we tried to do,” Mote said.
The punt looked at first like a good decision as Harding Academy started at its 18, but Keese rushed for 7 and 8 yards and had completions of 15 yards to Hardin and 25 to Gentry before running 37 yards up the middle to make it 19-12 with 1:59 to go.
It was a play that, by Keese’s account, Mote drew up on the sideline.
“The way they were playing us defensively, we kind of schemed it,” Mote said. “Being able to draw things up is one thing but being able to draw it up and execute is another thing and the kids did a great job of executing coming out of the timeout.”
“It was a great call,” Keese said. “We had the center blocking on the nose solo and it was just a wide-open hole. I didn’t get touched.”
Another extra point by Spears provided the final margin, as Harrisburg drove to the Harding Academy 28 but had the drive end on an incompletion as a diving Turner Norsworth couldn’t catch up to Zach Davis’ sideline pass.
“To hold that offense to 12 points I think is a remarkable job,” Mote said.
As it has become a perennial player in the late rounds of the playoffs each season, Harding Academy and its spread offense have established a reputation for throwing the ball. But on Friday, it was the ground game that pulled the Wildcats through.
Keese was the leading rusher with 183 yards while Lecrone had 79, and Harding Academy had just 68 passing yards.
“That’s just part of the game plan, people maybe mistake us for a passing team,” Mote said.
“I don’t know if teams have really been noticing, but we’ve average about 200 yards rushing all year,” Keese said.
Harrisburg took its 12-6 halftime lead on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Davis to Streeter in the first quarter and a 4-yard pass from Davis to Norsworth with 16 seconds left.
Harding Academy got its only score when Keese kept on a 1-yard run for the 6-0 lead with 9:53 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats suffered Spears’ missed 26-yard field goal in the second quarter.
All conversion attempts failed in the first half while Harding Academy gained 179 rushing yards as Keese picked up 115 and Lecrone gained 64. Keese was 2 of 8 for 20 passing yards in the half and Davis was 11 of 12 for 104 yards and his two scores.
“They’re very explosive offensively, they’ve had big plays,” Mote said.