Friday, December 09, 2011

SPORTS >> Will fifth time be the charm?

Leader sports editor

When Carlisle takes the field at 6:30 p.m. today at War Memorial Stadium to face the Strong Bulldogs in the class 2A state championship, it will have an advantage in one key area, experience. The Bison have been there before. Although none of the current players have played in a state championship game, the tradition of success permeates the program. Carlisle has played in the state title game four times, but hasn’t won one. For Strong, this year marks the first time it has even been to the semifinals. It handled that task well. Strong coach Shane Davis has no qualms calling his team the underdog, but says it’s a role his squad is used to.

“We play in the same conference with Bearden and Junction City, which are both powerhouses every year it seems like. So we’re used to being underdogs. We’ve been underdogs since day one, so it’s no big deal to us. This is the first year a team from our conference not named Bearden or Junction City has ever been to the title game. So we’re fighting for respect.”

Carlisle coach Scott Waymire doesn’t see anyone as an underdog at this point.

“To me there’s no underdog,” Waymire said. “Both of us had to fight hard to get here and both teams are very good. It’s one of those situations where it’s just hard to get here. It’s very hard to get here. It’s a major challenge to get here and we know that. Our kids know that. They’ve seen kids on good football teams not make it here. So we want to enjoy it but we want to take care of business while we’re here because we also know how good Strong must be to have made it here, too.”

Strong (10-3) had an up-and-down regular season. The Bulldogs were 4-3 after seven games and had just lost to Parker’s Chapel, which finished the season 4-6. Chapel, though, beat three other playoff teams besides Strong, including Carlisle rival Des Arc by 21 points.

After the loss to Parker’s Chapel, Davis made some personnel changes, and the Bulldogs have been on a roll. Sophomore Jacoby Heard started the season at quarterback, while Louisiana Tech signee Kenneth Dixon lined up at running back. After the third loss, Dixon took over most quarterback duties while Heard moved to receiver. There are still times when Heard will line up at quarterback though.

“Heard was still learning, and he was making some mistakes,” Davis said. “That falls on me for putting a sophomore in that situation in such a tough conference. We made the change and a couple of others, and we’ve been winning. So we’re hoping it continues.”

Strong lines up in the spread, but keeps it on the ground most of the time. Dixon ran it 43 times last week against Junction City. He has 2,805 rushing yards this season, that’s just 295 short of the state single-season record despite Strong having two open dates this season.

“He’s our horse, there’s no doubt about it,” Davis said. “But we’ve got a number of guys we feel comfortable giving the ball to.”

Lamar Williams, Arriun Gatson, Jamarian Ford and Antonio Green have all had plenty of carries and big runs this season.

The plethora of talented backs is not lost on Waymire.

“They’re loaded with athletes,” Waymire said. “Dixon’s the name guy because he carries the load, but they’ve got runners. They’ve always got runners, and guys that can make you miss in open space.”

Runners aren’t the only thing Strong has. The Bulldogs feature a defensive front that averages about 260 pounds, and most of them can move as well.

“Defensively they are very aggressive,” Waymire said. “They’ve got a defensive end that’s about 6-foot-7. They have size and speed up front. It’s going to be a ball game.”

Davis looks at Carlisle and sees similar strengths to his own team. The Bison don’t have a Kenneth Dixon, but they have several players who can effectively run the ball. They also have decent size and great athleticism on the lines.

“They have a number of guys that tote the football and tote it well,” Davis said. “Defensively the thing that’s impressive is how multiple they are. They’re in a three front one time, then a four front, and then you look out there and they’re in a five. They do it all very well. It’s a very well-coached team.”

Despite a first-round bye, Carlisle had a tough road to the title game, facing defending state runner up Danville in its first playoff game. After winning that game 22-16 with a fourth-quarter drive, the Bison repeated the feat to beat Gurdon 13-12.

In the Bison’s first playoff game as true underdogs, they hammered East Poinsett County 34-7 to get to the title game.

Strong is probably better than all those teams, but Waymire says there is one in particular he finds similar.

“I liken them a lot to Danville,” Waymire said. “They have so much speed, but they have size too. Danville was an outstanding ball club; Gurdon, outstanding ball club; EPC had an outstanding ball club. And we have a heck of a ball club and what makes us special is we are a ball club. All 40 on the team make up our team. There’s no selfishness among this group and that’s special.”

This year’s Carlisle seniors were in seventh-grade when Waymire took over as head coach of the entire Bison football program. That makes this group the first he’s coached all six years of their time at Carlisle. It’s a fact that Waymire takes to heart.

“It does make it more meaningful because you’ve seen guys grow up,” Waymire said. “It’s special because you build bonds. Whether we’re here or we go 0-10, those bonds can’t be replaced. I think of these guys as family and I hope they consider me in the same way.”

Each town is excited as well. Davis has never seen the Strong community so united.

“The whole town is excited,” Davis said. “I don’t know if anyone’s feet have touched the ground yet.”

The Carlisle community is a bit more used to this kind of success, but is once again abuzz after a long stint without a championship shot.

“Twelve years is a long time, and there’s been a lot of good football here in those 12 years,” Waymire said. “This town is always so supportive. They’re excited just like they’re excited every Friday night. It’s been a wonderful place for me and my family since we got here six years ago. Carlisle is a special place with special kids. There are high expectations here, and we like that.”