On the surface, it seems that tonight’s 2A state championship game between Junction City and Hazen is a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
The Dragons (11-2), the 8-2A champions and winners of 10 straight games, meet the Hornets (13-0), the 6-2A champions, who are trying to cap an undefeated season this week along with 3A finalist Booneville.
Game time is set for 7 p.m. from War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
These schools last met four years ago at the same venue for the 2A state title with Junction City winning 38-6 to capture their last championship.
A year ago, the Dragons made it to the 3A state finals, but fell to Rivercrest.
Since then, Junction City’s senior class vowed that they would get back to Little Rock.
Now they aim to finish on a high note.
“From the time we unloaded the bus after coming home last season, the seniors in this class knew that we had to finish, and they’ve come in and worked hard throughout the offseason,” said Junction City coach Steven Jones. “They continue to be a group that has a lot of good leadership in it. They really go out there and fight and give it their all and leave it all on the field. That makes them easy to coach. They do everything that you ask them to do. They make my job fun, so I’ve enjoyed this senior class.”
For the Hornets, tonight’s game marks their fourth trip to the state finals, but they are looking for their first state title.
“I tell the kids all the time, ‘You guys want to be that team that does it. You have an opportunity here to change the past,’” said Hazen coach Joe Besancon. “Instead of it being 0-for-4, it could be 1-for-4, so they’re looking forward to that challenge and they know that they have an opportunity to do something special.”
Both schools have been dominant in their runs to Little Rock.
The closest game Hazen has played this season was their opener back in August when they downed Cross County 26-20.
Since then, all of their wins have been in double figures with their 22-6 win over Des Arc during conference play serving as their toughest test.
Hazen has obliterated its opponents this season by a whopping margin of 604-97, and that trend has continued into the postseason.
In their four playoff wins, the Hornets have destroyed the opposition, outscoring foes 165-15.
Last week in the semifinals, the Hornets crushed Mount Ida 42-0.
“It was a surprise to me, because I felt like we got a really tough draw going into the playoffs,” Besancon said. “We were going to have to get past Quitman, who is going to sling it and pass the ball a lot. Then we had Gurdon, who beat Mount Ida and played Foreman tough. Then we had Hampton, so it’s been a tough road. Last week we got Mount Ida, but our kids played really well on the defensive side. That says a lot. They prepared themselves well. Whatever we’re trying to do that week, they’re paying attention and understanding what their responsibility is.”
Hints of the Hornets’ dominance showed a year ago when a team laden with sophomores and juniors went 9-3 and reached the state quarterfinals.
“It one of those where the kids are a year older, so that means that they’re not only a year older and they’re a little bit more mature, they’ve had another year in the weight room,” Besancon said. “That stuff shows up. Last year, we had a lot of sophomores that had to make a lot of plays. Now they’re juniors. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster. It makes you able to compete a lot better. We’ve had a lot of guys just get better throughout the year.”
The Dragons got off to a 1-2 start against a tough non-conference slate that included 3A quarterfinalists Harmony Grove and Smackover, as well as Haynesville (La.), who reached the 1A semifinals.
Junction City has won 10 straight games since then with their 7-6 win over Fordyce being their closest game.
Like Hazen, the Dragons have cruised in the playoffs, winning their four games by a margin of 182-55.
Junction City ventured out of Union County for the first time since beating Hector in Week 9 for their semifinal showdown last week at Foreman, but as has been the case during their playoff run, the Dragons were able to get out of the gates quickly, taking a 12-0 lead before pulling away in the second half to top the defending state champions.
“We got off to a fast start. We were able to finish a couple of drives early,” Jones said. “We had a turnover that could’ve put us up three scores. That really would’ve taken the air out of those guys, but turnovers let people hang around, and we’ve got to take care of the football.”
When asked if he thought the Hornets and Dragons were mirror images of one another, Jones agreed.
“That’s probably an accurate statement,” Jones said. “Size-wise, they’ll be able to match us pretty well. Strength-wise, it’s pretty close. It’s the state championship game, so you expect to see a team that is just as good as you are in that matchup.”
Jones said that the Hornets compare with fellow 6-2A rival Des Arc.
“Up front, they’re as physical as Des Arc,” Jones said. “Des Arc wasn’t as skilled on the back end and didn’t really have the points to show for it, but they had a really good offensive line. I think Hazen matches that. On the back end, speed-wise, I think we’ve seen faster, but we haven’t seen this downhill stuff much this year.”
With junior quarterback Blayne Toll along with fellow junior running backs Ay’Jon Green and Tarrall Penn leading the way, the Hornets have pulverized opposing defenses with their powerful running attack.
“Their offensive line is big and strong,” Jones said. “They’ve been able to run the ball successfully throughout the season. They like to keep it on the ground. They’ll throw it a little bit, but they’re mainly a power run team. They run a lot of counter trey, and they’re really just a downhill power run team.”
The Dragons also have a powerful backfield of their own in senior Dhante Gibson and junior Jakiron Cook, but a big reason for Junction City’s success has been the emergence of their passing game with junior quarterback Brady Hutcheson completing over 71 percent of his passes in the playoffs and senior Kevontae Haynes has caught 14 passes for 464 yards and five touchdowns in the postseason.
For Besancon, it’s Junction City’s size that immediately stood out to him while preparing for tonight’s game, saying that the Dragons are the biggest team the Hornets have faced this year “by far.”
“On offense, their offensive line is huge,” Besancon said. “They’ve got some big, big boys across the front, and their backs run really hard. They’re a really good football team. They’re polished in everything that they do.”
But while the Hornets may not have gone up against a team as big as the Dragons are, they have seen a team that has plenty of team speed in 6-2A rival Earle, who they downed 34-12 in Week 8.
“They’ve got a lot of team speed, kind of like Earle. Earle had a lot of guys that if they get in open space in one-on-one situations, they can hurt you. Those are some the things we’re going to have to try and stay away from,” Besancon said. “They’ve got some guys that if they get into the open field, they can take it to the house.”
Besancon said that experience will help his team.
“It does help because we’ve seen some speed,” Besancon said. “We’ve played Earle. We played Gurdon, who had some good team speed. It does help. Sometimes you can be overwhelmed with speed because you just don’t see it. We’ve played a few teams this year that had some speed, so hopefully it’s prepared us for what we’re going to see Friday night.”
If the Hornets are to win their first state title, Besancon said his team must win the battle up front.
“We’ve got to control the line of scrimmage on both sides,” Besancon said. “That’s the big thing. We have to got to win the war in the trenches because they are just so good up front on both sides. If the weather is an issue, we’re going to have to make sure we take care of the football. No matter what, we have got to make sure we take care of the ball. If it’s going to be cold and wet and rainy, we’ve got to make sure that we protect it even more.”
Jones agreed with his counterpart when asked what his team must do to win.
“We’ve got to win up front and win the turnover battle,” Jones said.