Tuesday, October 15, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Athletic Cougars a threat to Bears

Leader sportswriter

Don’t tell Sylvan Hills head coach Jim Withrow the stars are lining up for a week-9 showdown with Pulaski Academy to decide the 5A Central Conference championship, he is too worried about the long road trip ahead this week to face Helena-West Helena.

The Cougars (3-3, 2-1) were projected to finish towards the bottom of the Central Conference according to many preseason polls, but they have proved to be competitive through the first six weeks of the season. They defeated Jacksonville 38-18 to open league play in week four, and handled Little Rock McClellan easily in a 49-6 blowout last week. Their only Central setback to date was a 50-28 loss at the hands of top-ranked Pulaski Academy in week five.

HWHC’s emergence shouldn’t be too surprising. The team returns 20 starters from last year’s team, most of which are juniors. The Bears (5-1, 3-0) struggled to put local rival Jacksonville away last week before a second-half surge lifted them to a 25-16 win. They also have a junior-laden starting lineup with some talented seniors playing key roles.

HWHC is primarily a spread team, but can go with multiple looks, including the wing-T and wishbone. The Cougars also returned 10 starters on both sides of the ball this year, a stat that trumps their visitors this week. Defensively, the Cougars prefer going with a 3-4 front.

“I think they’re every bit as good as Mills was,” Withrow said. “This is not going to be easy at all. They’re fast and they’re physical. The last couple of weeks, we’ve seen bigger defensive linemen. They’re not as big, but they move real well, and they’re strong. Offensively, they’ve got a three-year starter at quarterback, and up front, they look real physical. They’ve got some receivers that can go catch it.”

Jacksonville controlled the clock during the first half of last week’s game, leaving the Bears with just three possessions during the first 24 minutes of play. One of those possessions ended quickly with a fumble on the first play, which gave the ball right back to Jacksonville.

Sylvan Hills finally got things going in the second half and eventually overtook its nearby PCSSD rival, but Withrow is hoping for a smoother experience against the Cougars this week.

“I don’t think we played as well as we have,” Withrow said. “We just played well enough to win. We got some stops there on defense that helped us, and made some plays on offense that got us through at the end. We’ve got to play better, but I think a lot of ours was that we had three pretty tough weeks before this one.”

The remainder of the Bears’ schedule includes what could be looked at as two good chances to win and one extremely tough opponent in Pulaski Academy in week nine.

The Bears will host winless Little Rock McClellan next week, and will conclude the regular season at North Pulaski.

That essentially means that a win over the Cougars would almost certainly guarantee no worse than a No. 2 playoff seed for Sylvan Hills, and the chance to play for an outright Central championship against the brutal Bruins.

Withrow is not ready to look that far ahead, however.

“Do we play in week nine?” Withrow said. “Do we have a game in week nine? I didn’t think we played anybody in week nine. I can tell you this, it’s all I’ve been asked. When the referee comes up to you on Friday night and asks, ‘do you play PA next week?’ We need to beat Helena first.”