By JASON KING
Fountain Lake travels to Searcy to face the Harding Academy Wildcats at First Security Stadium on Friday.
The 3A state semifinal game is not only a repeat of this year’s season opener; it is a repeat of last year’s semifinal won by eventual state champion Fountain Lake. Friday’s winner earns a trip to the state championship game at War Memorial Stadium on Dec. 11.
Harding Academy (11-1) earned the No. 1 seed from the 2-3A Conference and sat out the first week of the playoffs with a bye before hammering Bald Knob 41-14 in the second round. That put the Wildcats into the quarterfinals with another home game against Rison, which Harding Academy won 35-6 on Friday.
Fountain Lake (9-4) ended Harding Academy’s season last year when the Cobras won 42-10 and went on to defeat Prescott in the state championship game to finish with a 14-1 record.
The Wildcats got their revenge to open this season with a 28-20 victory that was not nearly as close as the final score indicated.
The Cobras have won nine of their past 10 games after starting the season 0-3, a skid that included the Harding Academy loss. Fountain Lake fell in its two remaining non-conference games, 28-7 to Booneville and 34-21 to Hot Springs Lakeside the following week.
But once conference play got underway, the Cobras rose to their tradition and went 6-1, losing only to eventual 5-3A Conference champion Glen Rose.
“We are a different team from the beginning of the season,” Fountain Lake coach Tommy Gilleran said.
“We had some injuries, and some personnel problems. Four of the guys starting for us then are not on the team now, so we’re a totally different team.”
Gilleran hopes Friday is a repeat of last year’s semifinal and not the season opener and agreed Harding Academy and Fountain Lake have developed a rivalry in a short time.
“We put them out last year, and I’m sure they’d love to put us out this year,” Gilleran said. “They were real fired up when we played earlier this year; probably more than we were.”
Senior running back Mark Macon has led the Cobras with 128 carries for 1,074 yards. Senior quarterback Coleman Crawford has had a season comparable to that of Keese with 52 completions on 85 attempts for 1,527 yards, 18 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
For the Wildcats, whose only loss came against Heber Springs in Week 2, this season has been business as usual. Harding Academy ended its non-conference run with a defensively dominated 8-6 victory over former 6-2A Conference rival Des Arc.
Harding Academy swept the conference for the second straight season, winning every game by at least three scores. The Wildcats wrapped up the championship two weeks early with a 37-7 victory over cross-town rival Riverview in Week 8.
Senior quarterback Seth Keese, who has started since his sophomore year, surpassed the 9,000 mark for career total yardage last week against Rison. Keese scored four of the Wildcats’ five touchdowns on rushes of two yards or less, and had 16 carries for 86 yards.
Keese was also 14 of 18 passing for 182 yards.
Keese has led the Wildcats with a balanced attack all season. He has completed 154 of 240 attempts for 2,024 yards and 17 touchdowns with only four interceptions and a completion percentage of 64.17.
He has rushed 132 times for 1,088 yards and 20 more touchdowns, giving him a total of 27 touchdowns and 3,112 all-purpose yards.
The Fountain Lake series has been significant in Keese’s career.
He tore his anterior cruciate ligament on the third play of last year’s semifinal and, though he continued to try to play, he was limited. Keese skipped basketball as he spent most of the offseason rehabilitating.
But Keese returned in top form for this season’s opener with a four-touchdown performance as he went 12 of 17 passing for 147 yards and two scores, along with eight carries for another 151 yards.