Tuesday, October 20, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Rested Bears take on Lions

Leader sports editor

Sylvan Hills comes off the bye week created by the elimination of the North Pulaski football program late last spring, and the time off came at a great time for the Bears. This Friday, Sylvan Hills embarks on a three-week stretch to close the regular season that includes all three of the other playoff frontrunners from the 5A-Central. It starts with the week eight matchup with Little Rock McClellan at Blackwood Field.

“It came at a great time for us,” said Sylvan Hills coach Jim Withrow of the bye week. “We have some players a little dinged up. We had some things we really needed to work on that we were able to address, and this is what it all comes down to for us. I don’t care what anybody says. This is the hardest part of our schedule. And I’m going to tell you something else. McClellan is a good football team. They’re better than they were last year and they’re getting better each week this year.”

In one of the more bizarre games of the season last year, the Bears won a 28-20 decision in a nearly empty stadium with about a dozen players out with the flu.

Like last year, the Bears are 7-0 coming into the game while the Lions have flipped their record from a year ago from 2-5 to 5-2. The two teams share two common opponents. The Bears beat J.A. Fair 54-0 and beat Mills 45-21. McClellan beat Fair 70-0 and Mills 66-16.

The Lions’ two losses were 27-8 to Class 7A Bryant in week two, and 41-30 to Pulaski Academy in week five.

“They’re big, they’re fast and they’re extremely physical,” Withrow said of the Lions. “As bad as our last game was (a six-turnover, 17-penalty, 29-14 win over Jacksonville) I thought our defensive line was very physical and played well. And that’s something they’re going to have to be this week. You have to be physical with McClellan or they’ll push you around.”

The Bears’ offense has been outstanding this season, especially in the first three weeks when it averaged 57 points per game. In its three conference games, it has still averaged 42 points per game, but Withrow believes the execution has not been as sharp as earlier games. Even after the 54-0 win over Fair, Withrow said he wanted to see crisper play. That didn’t happen against Jacksonville, and that’s a big reason why he was glad for the bye week before the most important stretch of the season.

“I thought we got a little sloppy against Fair,” Withrow said. “Against Jacksonville, at times I thought it looked downright unorganized. And that’s on me. We had some communication problems that we’ve had a chance to work on. I think we got that fixed, working on some signals. We play fast, but we want to play even faster. And I think spending time working on those signals is going to help us to do that.”

McClellan’s last two games were the Fair and Mills matchups, and the Lions have averaged 68 points in those games. It has been the easiest two-week stretch of the season for McClellan, but the offense has looked good against quality opponents as well.

The Lions’ offense struggled in a 14-13 win over Beebe, but like Sylvan Hills’ game with Jacksonville, McClellan committed several turnovers against the Badgers.

The Lions’ offensive struggles continued in the first half the next week when it fell behind Pulaski Academy 34-0. That’s when things started clicking again. Since halftime of the PA game, the Lions have outscored their opponents by a combined 166-23.