When Junction City and Hazen meet for the 2A state title Friday night in Little Rock, it will be a clash of two of 2A’s most balanced backfields.
Both the Dragons and Hornets have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers that have been vital to their team’s success.
Senior Dhante Gibson and junior Jakiron Cook power the Dragons with juniors Ay’Jon Green and Tarrall Penn pacing the Hornets.
The balance between the Hornets’ duo borders on the absurd.
Green has tallied 1,499 yards and 23 touchdowns with Penn just three yards behind at 1,496 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“They’re a different style,” Hazen coach Joe Besancon said of his tandem. “Green is more of the open-field type runner. He can set up blocks really well and cut off those blocks. Penn is the explosive guy. He just kind of shoots out of there, and bam!, there he is. They both run with good power. Very seldom do you see them go down on first contact.”
The duo has almost split their carries evenly for the season with Green having 165 to Penn’s 159.
And if you ask who is better, that generally leads to a rather spirited discussion.
“They bicker with each other back and forth all of the time, ‘I’m better. No, I’m better,’” Besancon said. “They argue, but on Friday nights, they’ve got each other’s back. They do a good job of rotating themselves back there and keeping each other fresh. If either one of them was in a different program where they were the main back, they would be a 2,000-yard rusher.”
Although Green and Penn get the bulk of the carries, junior quarterback Blayne Toll is a threat in his own right with over 700 yards rushing, giving the Hornets a trio that has collaborated for nearly 3,700 yards rushing this season.
“There’s three of them that can hurt you,” Besancon said. “The other night when we played Mount Ida, Penn had the hot hand. He was the man that was rolling when he got the ball in his hands. You stick with those guys, and they feed off of that. It makes it tough on a defense. They do a lot. They’re well-balanced, and we lean on those three guys to make a lot of plays for us. If I was a defensive coordinator having to prepare for us, that would be a concern simply because how explosive those guys can be.”
Junction City coach Steven Jones sees similarities between Green and Penn and his tandem.
“They’ve got big, physical, bruising backs in the backfield,” Jones said. “They just run it right at you. Both guys have shown that they can be explosive and make big plays. They’ll boot and play-action off of it and run a waggle. They do a good job. It’s a pro style, downhill, a lot like what we try to do.”
Jones added that he likes how Penn blocks.
“He’s a great blocker and weighs around 220 pounds,” Jones said. “He does a good job when he doesn’t have the ball.”
Over the last seven weeks, Gibson has been superb.
In that span alone, he has rushed for 1,187 yards, good for an average of nearly 170 yards per game. He has rushed for over 140 yards in six of his last seven games while scoring 15 touchdowns.
But he was at his best last week in the semifinals at Foreman, racking up 250 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries.
“Dhante just continues to get better each week,” Jones said. “I’m just proud that he’s on our team. He’s a good player and he’s carried us down the stretch. He’s a leader. He leads by example and does things the right way on the field and off the field. I’m proud of the way Dhante is playing, and I hope he has one more big game in him Friday night.”
Besancon was impressed with Gibson’s tenacity when he runs the ball.
“He’s explosive,” Besancon said. “He runs with a lot of power even though he’s not one of your bigger backs. It seems like when gets into the open field, he can make some things happen. You don’t see him go down on first contact a lot of times. He’s just a well-balanced running back.”
But if there is a reason for Gibson’s outstanding run, it’s Cook.
A junior, Cook racked up 400 yards combined against Harmony Grove and Smackover at the outset of the season.
In the playoffs, Cook rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries in Junction City’s second round win over Mountainburg, and he added 93 yards and three touchdowns in the semifinals against Foreman last week.
“A lot of that comes from Jakiron Cook, too,” Jones said of Gibson’s stretch run. “Jakiron Cook came on early for us and proved that he could really be the back in our offense. Once we had the competition going, both of those guys have found ways to make plays.
“The competition there to be the guy has helped both players out. It’s made them both work harder and compete. I think that Dhante has decided that he’s going to be the guy. He’s going to be the senior leader that we needed. Down the stretch, he’s proven that he’ll put the team on his back and carry us.”