Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Bears, Badgers in big game

Leader sports editor

This year’s week nine matchup between Beebe and Sylvan Hills doesn’t appear to carry the same weight as last year’s meeting. Neither team is undefeated and key injuries have depleted a Beebe roster that had high hopes and expectations coming into the season. But this Friday’s 7 p.m. game at Beebe’s Bro Irwin Stadium still means a lot to both teams who have already punched their tickets to the playoffs.

What’s not settled is seeding. Sylvan Hills (7-1, 4-1) can still share a conference championship if it wins its last two games. After Beebe, the Bears close at home against Pulaski Academy. If the Badgers (4-4, 3-2) beat Sylvan Hills, they could finish anywhere from second to fourth, depending on how the other three 5A-Central playoff teams, which includes Sylvan Hills, PA and McClellan, finish.

It’s the last regular season game for Beebe, who was scheduled to play North Pulaski in week 10, so it will be waiting to see what happens to those three teams to see where it will land in the postseason bracket.

Friday’s game is an intriguing one. Beebe has pieced together a competitive team despite season-ending injuries to four starters, including a 1,000-yard rusher, the starting quarterback and two starters in the secondary who were also the second- and third-string quarterbacks.

That’s left the Badgers with senior Bo Smith under center. Smith was the starting inside linebacker, and still plays about half the snaps on defense. He had some experience at quarterback before this year. He had to step in at quarterback against Vilonia last year because of injuries that weren’t quite as serious as the ones this season.

“He’s the one that’s stabilized us back there, so we’re going to keep going with what we got,” said Beebe coach John Shannon. “We’ve got two other guys we’ve been getting ready, but we feel like he gives us the best chance to compete.”

Sophomore Stephen Hamil, who has been the junior varsity quarterback this season, and junior Nathan Clifton, who played quarterback in junior high, are currently working as backups to Smith.

“Bo was only our fourth string just because we didn’t want to take him off defense,” Shannon said. “I probably felt as comfortable with him all along as any of our backups, but he’s also a three-year starter at linebacker. He still plays about 50 percent of the time on defense because he’s that valuable to us. The good thing is, it’s late in the season. He’s in good shape. It’s gotten cooler so playing both ways isn’t quite as hard this time of year as it is early on.”

Sylvan Hills enters the game fresh off its first loss of the season, a 44-32 defeat to McClellan. When sizing up this week’s opponent, Bear coach Jim Withrow had high praise for the man standing across the field from him.

“Everybody talks about (PA coach) Kevin Kelley, and I think he’s as good a coach in the state as we have, but people overlook guys like John (Shannon). They’ve had so many injuries last year and this year. And the way he’s just been able to patch, and patch and patch, and still have that ship afloat, it’s amazing to me how he does it.”

As for his own team, Withrow is still working on correcting recent mistakes that his team wasn’t making early in the season. Turnovers, miscues and penalties began to appear as far back as the J.A. Fair game. They peaked in a 17-penalty, six-turnover game against Jacksonville three weeks ago. The Bears still managed to win that one, largely because of 20 penalties against the Red Devils. But they couldn’t overcome 12 flags against a vastly improved McClellan squad.

“This game is huge, and we need to get back on track,” Withrow said. “Let’s win this game here and give ourselves a chance to share a conference championship.”

The Bears are also hoping to shed the mental demons that come along after the way last season ended. Sylvan Hills was 8-0 going into this game last year and lost a wild, high-scoring affair at home. The Bears then lost its regular-season finale to PA, and its first-round playoff game at Wynne.

Another loss this week could be damaging to morale.

“”It’s huge also because if you win this, you feel like we’re a different team and it’s not going to be like last year,” Withrow said.

It starts with possessions. Beebe wants the ball, and wants to keep it.

“The key is going to be us having good, long drives and keeping their offense on the sidelines,” Shannon said. “I think we’ve come a long way with our offense, piecing it together. Right now we feel like we can move the ball. We just need to hang onto it and not shoot ourselves in the foot.

“Our defense has been solid all year long, but I just don’t know if we can slow them down, to be honest with you. With the possible exception of PA, it’s the biggest test we’ve faced all year long. And I think they’re more athletic than PA on offense. One false step, and just about anybody they give the ball to is gone to the house. So we have to limit their possessions.”

Withrow has the exact same take.

“John wants 3 yards every play,” Withrow said. “If he gets fourth and short, he’s going for it and you have to expect that. We can’t allow them to take up a whole quarter with one drive. If we can get a turnover or a quick three and out, and then capitalize on those things, we’ll be in good shape. And we have to take better care of the ball ourselves.”