Tuesday, December 07, 2010

SPORTS >> Wildcats in title tussle

Leader sportswriter

Harding Academy’s second dose of revenge against Fountain Lake on Friday has landed the Wildcats in their first state championship game in eight years.

The Wildcats (12-1) punched their ticket to the 3A final with a 33-15 semifinal victory over the defending state champion Cobras, about the same time unbeaten Rivercrest was taking care of West Fork to claim the other final berth in War Memorial Stadium at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.

Harding Academy beat Fountain Lake in the season opener, a game that served as an early warning to the rest of the 3A classification and gave the Wildcats their first measure of revenge against the team that beat them in last year’s semifinals.

Harding Academy’s recent playoff history did not repeat Friday thanks in part to another four-touchdown performance from senior quarterback Seth Keese.

Rivercrest (14-0) survived a gritty comeback effort by West Fork to win its semifinal 17-14. Rivercrest went up 17-0 to start the second half before West Fork cut it to three with just over two minutes left.

Saturday’s outcome means either Harding Academy or Rivercrest will take its first loss within in its own classification. Harding Academy’s only loss came in Week 2 against 4A Heber Springs, and then the Wildcats swept their 2-3A Conference schedule for the second straight year to earn a top seed and first-round playoff bye.

Saturday will also mark the final high-school game for Keese, who has started at quarterback and defensive back since his sophomore year. Keese rose to the occasion against Fountain Lake with a 241-yard performance that included 18 rushes for 71 yards and a touchdown as well as a 15-of-23 night passing for 170 yards and three touchdowns, all to different receivers.

Keese found Corey Guymon with a 19-yard touchdown pass early in the second half to break a 16-15 halftime tie and also had scoring passes to senior receivers Josh Spears and Tyler Curtis.

For his career, Keese has 9,320 yards of total offense and 112 touchdowns.

Harding Academy and Rivercrest both fell a game short of the championship last year. Following the confusion of a lawsuit filed by Lamar over the eligibility of a transfer student, which postponed the playoffs a week, the Wildcats and Colts marched through the brackets until falling in the semifinals.

If Harding Academy wins Saturday, it would be the Wildcats’ fifth overall title dating to their first in 1976. It would be the Colts’ first championship since 1985 and their second overall.

The Wildcats won their last state title as a Class AA team in 2002 when they defeated Danville 29-26, and were led by a Keese then as well. Seth Keese’s older brother Caleb was Harding Academy’s quarterback from 2000-2002, and is still listed in the Arkansas Activities Association record book in several categories.