Tuesday, September 20, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Bears facing biggest test at McClellan

Leader sports editor

This year, Sylvan Hills doesn’t have to wait until the last three weeks of the season to face a major obstacle to its goal of a conference championship. The Bears travel to southwest Little Rock on Friday for a 7 p.m. kickoff against defending state runner-up McClellan High School. The Lions have 17 returning starters from last year’s team that rolled over the Bears in Week 8 last season.

The last two years, Sylvan Hills has played every other playoff team from its conference in its final three regular-season games, and things haven’t gone well.

“It’s kind of nice to break them up a little bit,” said Sylvan Hills coach Jim Withrow, about the big games. “The last couple of years, the last month has been tough. Now we have an opportunity to handle our business and not be scrambling at the end.”

Pierce Strong (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) ran for more than 300 yards against Sylvan Hills in last year’s 44-32 Lion victory. He ran for 2,248 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. He returns along with quarterback Davion Childs to continue that dynamic offense of last year.

McClellan (2-1) has scored more than 50 points twice already this year, but has also given up at least 50 on two occasions. The Lions beat Parish Episcopal of Dallas, Texas 76-50 in the season opener, and then lost 52-20 to 7A North Little Rock. Last week, they beat Hall 52-0.

McClellan doesn’t have a lot of depth, so Withrow believes the Lions’ defense will get better as the season progresses, the weather gets cooler and they get into better shape.

“I think one of the deals is, I think a bunch of them are going both ways,” Withrow said. “Some of it (the points allowed) might be they’re getting tired. They’ve played teams that probably have more depth than they have. By doing that, it probably hurt them some. Philosophically they haven’t changed much. They’re still playing a lot of man and running to the ball.”

McClellan’s defense wasn’t the problem for the Bears last year. Sylvan Hills compiled 364 yards of offense in last year’s game.

The Bears also committed six illegal procedure penalties last year, one of which helped halt progress on a potential game-winning drive after trailing 30-12 late in the third quarter.

“We made some mistakes last year that really cost us, things that had nothing to do with McClellan,” Withrow said. “We have to get those things fixed, things I think the coaches have cured.”

The Bears still had no answer for McClellan’s offense last year, an offense that averaged 57 points per game in its six wins between the two losses to Pulaski Academy. But the Bears also have a lot back on a defense that’s now a year more experienced.

“They have a year’s experience, plus I think they’re faster and stronger than last year,” Withrow said of his defensive players. “I think we’re just better overall on defense. The defense was outstanding last week. Jacksonville isn’t McClellan, but I think we’re getting better each week.”