Tuesday, November 25, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Badgers confident going to Wynne

Leader sports editor

The Beebe Badger football team will be playing after Thanksgiving for the first time since 1983 when they take on the Wynne Yellowjackets Friday at Yellowjacket Stadium. It’s a Class 5A semifinal matchup of the former conference mates. The Badgers, 8-4, have survived two playoff games that went down to the wire, beating Nettleton 49-48 in the first round and winning 42-35 at Hot Springs in the quarterfinals last week.

Wynne, 11-1, cruised through its first-round game before gutting out a 27-17 win at Maumelle in last week’s quarterfinal.

This week’s matchup is a battle of No. 2 seeds. The Yellowjackets lost 34-28 in week seven to 5A-East champion and semifinalist Batesville. They committed three turnovers in that game, something that played a huge role in three of Beebe’s four losses.

The Badgers lost their first three games, but haven’t lost since week six, when it fell 65-36 to the other semifinal team, Pulaski Academy.

Wynne coach Chris Hill doesn’t believe the first three weeks have any bearing on games in late November.

“I think Beebe’s losses were the same as our loss,” Hill said. “There are some teams that are good enough that you can’t turn the ball over and expect to beat them. Batesville is one of those teams and that’s why we got beat. Beebe played some quality teams and turned the ball over. They haven’t been doing that lately and they’ve won several in a row.”

The two teams share two common opponents because the East matched up with the Central in the first round. Wynne hammered Sylvan Hills at home 54-7 while Beebe got past the Bears 41-37 on the road.

Wynne struggled for a half with Nettleton, falling behind 29-21 on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, but rolled up 29 unanswered points to win going away 50-29.

Beebe coach John Shannon believes Wynne is one of the best teams in the state, but thinks the same of his bunch.

“They’re pretty good, but when you get down to the final four everybody’s pretty good,” said Shannon. “We’re there too, and from what I heard from our kids after last week’s game and the next day, they believe they can compete with anybody, and I believe that too.”

The other three semifinal teams are nearly mainstays for this time of year. Wynne and Pulaski Academy each have multiple state titles since 2000, while Batesville has played in, but not won, the last three state championship games.

Hill also doesn’t believe that gives his team any advantage.

“I don’t think so because the playoffs are about who’s playing the best ball,” Hill said. “Beebe is playing great football right now, particularly on the offensive side. They seem to score on every possession from the film I’ve seen. So you just hope you can get a couple of stops and then capitalize when you have the ball.”

How good the Beebe offense has been is not a matter of conjecture. The Badgers have punted only twice in the last five games combined. All other drives have ended in touchdowns or turnovers, which makes holding onto the ball of huge import this week.

Turnovers made their first two playoff games closer than they needed to be. Beebe committed three against Nettleton, and spotted Hot Springs 14 points with two quick ones in the first quarter last week.

“No one has really stopped us, but we’ve stopped ourselves a few times,” Shannon said. “If we can hold onto it and just do our thing, get our three and four yards at a time, I feel good about this game.”

Shannon addressed last Friday’s fumbles on Saturday with halfback Jo’Vaughn Wyrick, who lost both fumbles that led to Hot Springs touchdowns.

“He was wearing sleeves for the first time and I didn’t like it even before the game,” Shannon said. “After that second one we took the sleeves off of him and he didn’t drop it anymore. I told him Saturday that he’s never wearing sleeves again. I really don’t even like my backs to wear gloves, but I let them wear gloves. We’re not doing sleeves anymore though. It makes a big difference to the feel of things when you’re wearing something you’ve never worn and you’re not used to it.”

Wynne’s offense has been just as potent, though it doesn’t rely on ball control. The Yellowjackets’ 27 points last week were the fewest of the season, including the 34-28 loss to Batesville. In their other 10 wins, they have averaged 50.2 points per game.

Quarterback Ross Trail, a Cincinnati commitment who also received scholarship offers from Louisville and Ohio St., leads the Wynne offense, but he’s not alone as a playmaker. Running back Jamar Nixon has more than 1,200 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns this season. Zach Morris and Austin Wilson are both approaching 1,000 yards receiving.

Tripp Smith and Clayton Meurer each surpassed 100 yards rushing last week for Beebe. Smith and Wyrick have each rushed for well over 1,000 yards while Meurer is just under 800. But Shannon felt his quarterback played a huge role in last week’s win.

“Everybody sees our backs and all the yards they get, but I think the player of the game Friday was Aaron Nunez,” Shannon said. “About eight different times he checked out of the call and got us into the right play.”

With the game tied with 1:02 left, Shannon called timeout on fourth and 1 from the Hot Springs 15-yard line. Nunez didn’t like the looks of things and called another timeout. Shannon called the dive right with the halfback, but after getting to the line of scrimmage, Nunez checked to off tackle left. Smith gained 10 yards on the play. On the very next play, the Hot Springs nose guard shifted off center, and Nunez checked to the quarterback keeper and scored.

“Those are things no one knows but us coaches,” Shannon said. “They see Trip get 10 yards on fourth and 1 and everybody’s happy, but they don’t know how big it was for us that Nunez recognized the defense they were in and got us into that play.”

Last week, the Badgers faced the biggest team it has seen all year. This week it will be the fastest. Offensively the Yellowjackets’ speed shouldn’t be much of an issue since the Badgers don’t play in space, and instead run directly into defenses.

“In our conference just about everybody we play is faster than us,” Shannon said. “We don’t make you chase us much anyway. On defense, though, we’re going to have to be very sound, get lined up right and make tackles. They’re fast as all get out and it’s all over the field. But I’m looking forward to it.”