Tuesday, October 30, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> NLR after perfection

Leader sports editor

North Little Rock, fresh off an easy road win over the conference’s last-place team, Mountain Home, is set for its season finale on Thursday against a surging Little Rock Central. The Tigers will also be the first 7A team North Little Rock has played Since Sept. 28, thanks to the Arkansas Activities Association’s decision to combine the two classifications for the regular season, then split them during the playoffs with a convoluted power ratings system. The Wildcats opened league play with back-to-back games against 7A Cabot and West Memphis, then played four 6A teams in a row.

That’s one concern North Little Rock head coach Brad Bolding has about this Thursday’s matchup at North Little Rock Stadium.

“It’s been a while since we’ve played a really good team,” Bolding said. “The big thing I’ll be harping about all week is being prepared for the level of play we’re about to see that we haven’t seen in a few weeks.”

The Tigers’ overall record (4-5) isn’t that impressive, but three of those wins have come in the last three weeks.

“I think the last three weeks are what people were expecting from Central all season,” Bolding said. “It’s taken them a little longer than I’m sure they would have liked to get things going, but they’ve got them going now. They’re going to come in here with a lot of confidence after three-straight wins, and Central’s a good team. They’ve got good speed, good size. So we need to focus on the right things and come out ready to play.”

Coming out ready to play was something Bolding felt his team failed to do last week. The long bus ride to Mountain Home played a factor in that, but Bolding would still like to see more intensity at opening kickoff than he saw in that 52-3 victory.

“Offensively I was a little concerned with us coming out flat,” Bolding said. We got an illegal block penalty that backed us up, and we just didn’t start like we like to start. Defensively I think there was a little bit of a lack of energy early on. Once we woke up we were able to do a lot better. The third quarter we really played like I thought we should’ve been playing from the start.”

The Charging Wildcats led 23-3 at halftime, but scored 22 points in the third quarter. Backups played all the fourth quarter and got the ball into the end zone once while the defense continued to keep Mountain Home from moving the ball.

This week’s game being at home, Bolding isn’t as worried about a slow start, but it’s still something he’ll warn against during the week.

“We have a tendency to play pretty good at home,” Bolding said. “With this being senior night and all that going on, hopefully we won’t have to worry about a lack of energy.”

Special teams play was also a big improvement from the week before, especially kickoff coverage, which gave up a few big returns against Marion.

“I was disappointed they got the field goal because it was solely because of our mistake,” Bolding said. “We had a punt return that hit one of our players that set them up with really good field position. They didn’t go anywhere but they were right there to kick the field goal. On the other side of that, we did a much better job on kickoffs and we had a kickoff returned for a touchdown with no flags. We’ve had a couple of those called back this year and that’s very frustrating.”

North Little Rock vs. Little Rock Central has also become a rivalry game. While all the Little Rock area public schools were once in the state’s largest classification, even as recently as 10 years ago, only three remain, including Central, NLR and Hall. Only the Wildcats and Tigers have remained relevant at that level in football, so the rivalry grew naturally.

“I think that’s a credit to both schools,” Bolding said. “The coaching staffs, the kids, the people who involved financially providing support are all a factor in that. And if it weren’t for the administrations willingly supporting us and going all in to help athletics, we’d be dead in the water too. So credit goes to all of that. I really think, though, that our coaches do a great job. I think we have one of the best staffs around. The coaches here are great teachers of the game and they should get a lot of credit.”