Tuesday, December 02, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Turnaround by Badgers, Devils mark 2014 season

Leader sportswriter

The 2014 football season is over for all The Leader area teams, and though none made it to the capital city this year, there were plenty of notable stories worth remembering.

It starts with the turnaround made by the Beebe Badgers. Expectations were high in the preseason, but the team suffered as bad a start to the season as can be feared. Some of the problems, like injuries to several starters, could not be controlled. Other things, like an unforgiveable number of fumbles, turnovers and penalties, could have been.

For just about the entire first half of the season, it seemed like as soon as one key starter returned, another one went down.

It wasn’t until week seven when coach John Shannon fielded a team at full strength, and even then that was debatable. Everyone he expected to have was playing, but they weren’t all playing at 100 percent healthy. Regardless, the team fell behind quickly in that game at Mills, giving up a long run on the firstsnap. But that seemed to be the turning point of the season.

The Badgers went into that game with a 1-5 record and finished the year 8-5 after being awarded a forfeit win for its week-four game at McClellan, and winning six consecutive games before losing to perennial powerhouse Wynne in the Class 5A semifinals.

While the 21-7 win at Mills was, in retrospect, the turning point, it was the following week’s 41-37 victory at then undefeated Sylvan Hills that announced to the rest of the state that the Badgers were legitimate.

Beebe closed out the season with a pair of easy wins and got the McClellan game back to go into the postseason 6-4 overall, 6-1 in the 5A-Central and with a No. 2 seed. The Badgers won high-scoring thrillers in the first two rounds, beating Nettleton 49-48 and winning 42-35 at Hot Springs, the 5A-South champions.

Those two wins sent them to Wynne, where they were huge underdogs. Not only did no one pick Beebe to win, predictions ranged from a low end of a 14-point margin, to a 35-point margin at halftime and a continuous clock the second half. Most predictions were in between that, but most of those were nearer to 35 than 14.

Instead, Beebe imposed its will offensively and took the Yellowjackets to the wire, driving the ball while down seven when time ran short. The Badgers had to get away from its bread and butter of pounding it forward, and try for big yardage. It didn’t work and that was the game. But rest assured, Wynne got more than it bargained for from Beebe, and the Badgers proved their semifinal appearance was no fluke. The Badgers ended the 2014 season as good as any other 5A team in the state.

No one gives out a “turnaround of the year” award, but one way to recognize it would be to name John Shannon the Class 5A Coach of the Year. He deserves it. A lot of the credit goes to the seniors for staying focused and driven through such a miserable start, but a lot also goes to the man in charge. He never lost hope in those players, and began to sound like a broken record, telling the players each week to keep plugging, reminding them that they make up a good team that will come through if they’ll persevere.

A lesser leader couldn’t have held a group of kids together through the kind of turmoil the Badgers endured this season. Shannon deserves the honor and recognition.


There was another turnaround worth noting right there in the very same conference.

The Jacksonville Red Devils didn’t make it to the semifinals, but they made it to the playoffs, which was farther than anyone expected – anyone except the people in coach Barry Hickingbotham’s locker room.

The Red Devils were 1-6 overall and 1-3 in conference play through seven games, and closed with three-straight wins to advance to the playoffs. They were expected to beat North Pulaski in week eight, but the last two games were basically playoff games. Losses to either Mills or McClellan meant no week 11 for the loser.

This group of Red Devils had little experience in high-pressure games, and little experience winning at all. But it also persevered, rose to the challenge and won.

Hickingbotham got a late start with the team. He was hired after spring practice, and so did not get to work with the team then. He was hired too late to get into any summer leagues or camps. The team went on retreat to Walnut Ridge for a few days in late July, and that’s when the Hickingbotham era began.

It ended with a first-round loss at 5A-East champion Batesville, but not before the heavy underdogs put the Pioneers on the ropes in the first half.

The old adage about how athletics strengthens virtue and teaches life lessons is, honestly, overused. The sad truth is, in this day and age, athletics more often ruins virtue than strengthens it. But the players that made up the 2014 Badgers and Red Devils did show strength and virtue, and did learn lessons that can be carried through life.


Not every turnaround this season was a positive. Sometimes the injuries come late instead of early, and can help sabotage what seemed like a wonderful season. That’s what happened to Sylvan Hills. After an 8-0 beginning, the Bears finished with three-straight losses, largely because of an injury to the starting quarterback. While the Bears were pretty loaded with talented skill players, Trajan Doss made that team go. He got hurt against Beebe and finished the game, then was lost for the season the first day of practice the following week.

Bears’ coach Jim Withrow still believes sophomore Jordan Washington is the most physically gifted player he has, and will be a great player, but throwing a sophomore out of the frying pan of wideout and into the fire of quarterback in week 10 against a state powerhouse is not a position any team wants to be in.

The three teams Sylvan Hills lost to made up 3/4 of the semifinals and 100 percent of the championship game, so it’s not like the Bears suffered a total collapse and lost to bad teams. It’s just that without the player that has been running the system for three years, they couldn’t beat the state’s elite.


Venturing just a little further south than one is apt to find our royal blue boxes, there’s another team that could learn a few lessons. North Little Rock, once again, lost in the semifinals despite bringing in ringers from all over Pulaski County. The statewide daily newspaper ran a feature on one of those players last Friday. In that article, the player openly said he transferred from Catholic to North Little Rock to get better prepared for Division I football after signing with Northern Illinois.

Besides the fact that the excuse is nonsense – Catholic plays the same level of ball as North Little Rock, and hundreds, if not thousands, of players from much smaller high schools go DI every year, it’s also a violation to transfer for athletic purposes.

The main lesson, however, is this. Teams will almost never win a title with no stability or continuity. Bringing in new ringers every year does not provide stability – especially when they’re coming on false pretenses that are, at their core, selfish. How can a coach preach loyalty and teamwork to a group of guys brought in for personal reasons?

How much pride will folks in North Little Rock even have if the Wildcats were to win a title, knowing that it’s largely based on players from Little Rock, Bryant, Cabot, Jacksonville, Sherwood, etc. There is plenty of talent among North Little Rock’s own youth to have a successful program. Let those kids have a shot at it for a while. Let them have that bond of pride in common community and let them play together amidst that bond.

The current and recent NLR players, like this year’s Beebe players, know what it’s like to come close and lose. But unlike Beebe kids, they’ve had no opportunity to learn that there’s honor in defeat because the leadership set winning above all else. That’s precisely when athletics ceases to strengthen virtue, and that’s where athletics, by and large, is at today.