By Jason Avery
The 2017 season hasn’t been easy for Smackover and Lamar, but both teams have endured and have reached the playoffs for the 10th consecutive year.
Tonight, the Bucks will host the Warriors in the opening round of the 3A playoffs with the winner headed to Mayflower next week to face the 2-3A champions, who have a first-round bye.
Game time is set for 7 p.m. from Smackover.
The Bucks (6-4), who enter as the 6-3A’s No. 3 seed, snapped a two-game losing streak last week with a 46-20 win at Genoa Central.
The Warriors (5-5), the No. 4 seed from the 4-3A, have won three straight after a 2-5 start.
The schools last met three years ago in the second round of the playoffs with the Bucks advancing with a 44-8 win en route to reaching the state finals.
Smackover will also be hosting a first-round game for the fifth straight year, and coach Mike Baysinger said he is happy to open at home.
“It’s nice to be home and not have to travel five hours,” Baysinger said. “I think it’s going to be a good deal. All of our fans can come and catch the first one at least, so I think that’s going to be pretty good for us.”
Smackover has seen several solid running attacks this season, and they will see another tonight.
Lamar averages 337 yards of total offense, including 283 yards on the ground.
Sophomore Ike Pelts guides the Warriors’ attack.
“He’s really managed the offense,” said Lamar coach Josh Jones. “He’s matured to the point to where when he’s at the line of scrimmage, we’ll let him check in and out of a few things, and what’s been great about it is he’ll come to the sideline and say, ‘Hey coach, I think we should do this in this situation,’ and he’ll be right.”
Pelts has yet to throw an interception this year, going 26-of-59 passing for 412 yards with four touchdowns. He also averages nearly four yards per carry when he runs the ball.
“He does a good job,” Baysinger said. “They’re going to run Wing-T on us. They’re going to run the veer and some midline, and he does a good job of reading it. He’s good with the ball in his hands. They’re pretty solid on offense.”
Behind Pelts, the Warriors have a triumvirate of running backs that have taken turns in stepping up.
Senior Joe Mueller leads the Warriors with 1,039 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has topped the century mark six times and is also Lamar’s leading receiver with 11 catches for 265 yards and one touchdown.
Sophomore Jacob Parmenter has 594 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging nearly nine yards per carry. Last week against Paris, Parmenter had 104 yards and four touchdowns.
Rounding out the group is junior Jonathan Mayes, who has rushed for 487 yards and six touchdowns.
“He’s kind of the workhorse,” Jones said of Mueller. “All three of those guys have been really effective, and they compliment each other well. Mueller is definitely the big-play guy. He has the most speed. For us, he’s pretty fast with the speed we have.”
Having seen similar offenses over the last few weeks, Baysinger said that preparing for the Warriors has been a little easier.
“You can look at last week’s film and look at the things that you need to fix, and some of the things you can do better, so it kind of helps rather than starting with a brand new offense this week,” Baysinger said.
With senior Damarous White and sophomore Dexter Crockett, the Bucks have a solid 1-2 punch of their own in the backfield.
Last week at Genoa Central, White had a terrific performance, rushing for 212 yards and four touchdowns on just 10 carries, and he will be a major focal point for the Bucks tonight.
“This is his last year, and I’m going to tote him as much as I can while I’ve got him,” Baysinger said. “They’ve done a good job of stopping the run, so we’re going to test them out early with White and see how everything goes.”
The win at Genoa Central gave the Bucks some needed momentum after losing to Junction City and McGehee in consecutive weeks.
“It was good for us, especially for our psyche rolling into the playoffs,” Baysinger said. “It was a good confidence builder, and you hope to continue to build off of it. I thought we executed a little bit better offensively and took care of the ball. Defensively, we played pretty well.”
The start of the season was a rough one for the Warriors.
In addition to starting 2-5, Lamar lost three of its first four conference games.
“We started off a little slow,” Jones said. “We have a lot of young kids. We probably start six or seven tenth-graders, and it just takes a while for those kids to grow up. We played a pretty tough non-conference schedule. We played a 5A school (Clarksville), then we played the defending (2A) state champions at Mount Ida, who are really, really good.
"Then we played the top three teams in the conference, so that was our first six games. It was pretty tough on the front end.”
Although it would’ve been easy for the Warriors’ confidence to be shaken, Jones said his team just kept working hard.
“This bunch of kids I’ve got is a really hard-working group of kids,” Jones said. “We have a really small group of seniors, and I think those guys understood that it was going to be a process.”
An interesting facet to Lamar’s season has been the emergence of junior linebacker Bryr Bruton, who leads the team in tackles with 51.
“The thing with Bryr Bruton is he had never played linebacker before this year,” Jones said. “He had always played D-Line. He works really, really hard in the weight room, and he got strong, but he never got big. He was way, way undersized to play D-Line, so we put him at linebacker on the scout team, and he kept making plays.
“We stuck him the game, and he’s been our leading tackler. He has probably been one of the biggest surprises of the season for us. We didn’t have any idea that he could play at linebacker, and he stepped up and has done a really good job for us.”
With Bruton and Mayes, who ranks second on the team with 46 tackles, leading the way, the Bucks could have to go through the air to move the ball.
“Here’s what I honestly think. We’re going to try and run it, but I think you’re going to be able to throw the ball, especially the later you get into the season,” Baysinger said. “I think you can’t be so one-dimensional and go all the way. I think you’re going to run into teams that are bigger and stronger than you inside, and when that happens, we’re going to have to be able to move the ball outside and get it into our athletes’ hands.”
If the Warriors are to upend the Bucks, Jones said his team must limit big plays.
“We’ve got to contain big plays,” Jones said. “We’ve got to contain their offense. They seem like they’re a good, solid football team. They’re pretty solid at every position. They seem like they’ve got quite a bit of skill. Hopefully, we can win the turnover battle. Smackover is definitely going to have a speed advantage on us, and we’ve got to try and keep them contained.”
For the Bucks, Baysinger said his team must not turn the ball over.
“I think we have got to control and handle the ball offensively,” Baysinger said.
“We have got to sustain drives and take care of the football. Defensively, we’ve got line up sound, play good technique, play good responsibility ball and set the edges and make everything come back inside.”