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Strong, Mountain Pine to play for 8-man title

by Jason Avery | December 2, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

Eight days before the 10th anniversary of winning the 2A state championship back in 2011, Strong is ready to take a shot at winning another.

But standing in their way from capping a perfect season is a team that is presently the defending the state champion in eight-man football.

Tonight, Strong and Mountain Pine meet for the 2A 8-Man state title at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

Game time is set for 7 p.m.

Conference rivals in the 2A 8-Man South, the schools met on Oct. 15 at Strong’s Jerry Burson Field with the Bulldogs using a first-half scoring barrage to take a 38-12 lead at halftime before winning 48-30.

The Bulldogs (10-0), the South’s No. 1 seed, have been dominant in the postseason having dispatched Cedar Ridge and Brinkley by a combined score of 96-22.

The Red Devils (8-3), the South’s No. 2 seed, have gone on a tear since losing at Strong, winning four straight games by a combined score of 240-56. In the playoffs, the Red Devils topped Augusta 64-18 at home before taking down North champion Rector 50-18 on the road two weeks ago.

Strong coach Sirl Wright said his team is ready and excited for the trip to Little Rock.

“All coaches have the goal of winning a championship each year no matter if you were 0-10 last year, you still have that goal to be that championship team,” Wright said. “That’s what you work for all offseason and try to build things up to be that formidable opponent, but you have got to be realistic too and set realistic goals.

“When you reach your realistic goals, you’ve got to reshuffle things and raise those expectations, and our kids have really responded to those expectations.

“They’re ecstatic about going to Little Rock. I’m proud of them and we’re going to keep working to try and finish this deal and complete the season as an undefeated team.”

As the defending state champion, Mountain Pine has gotten everyone’s best shot and has reached the title game thanks in large part to one of the most prolific offenses in Arkansas regardless of classification.

“I think it puts a target on us,” Mountain Pine coach Sam Counce said of being the defending state champions. “As an opposing team, that would be easy for me to get ready for the defending state champion.

“Sometimes that can work against you, and that’s what will happen if we don’t prepare ourselves and get ready mentally and focus on Strong. That’s a motivating factor to beat the defending state champion, and I’m sure that’s what they’re plugging.”

Counce said the Red Devils’ non-conference game against Little Rock Hall helped prepare them for conference play.

“At the time we played Hall, they were hitting on all cylinders,” Counce said. “That was a good game for us. It was an add-on game for us because one of our conference games was canceled. It was a good game.

“Playing somebody that doesn’t give you a lot of competition, I’m not in favor of just because you don’t learn what your body can do and how far you can push yourself and what it takes to win sometimes if it’s easy. I like playing those guys. It gives us a good test. That’s what Strong is. They’re tough. We’ve got to play mistake-free and get after it to survive.”

The Bulldogs entered the season not knowing what to expect, but as the season wore on and the wins kept piling up, the goals for the team changed.

“Each season you set up and try to make goals,” Wright said. “You try to make them realistic. Our first primary goal was just to make the playoffs because as a program, we hadn’t made the playoffs in quite some time, so I was just trying to get over that hump and build on that momentum for future years.

“When we maybe got to about 5-0, it kind of changed expectations. We had to reevaluate ourselves. We knew we had the harder eight-man teams coming up, and even though we were 5-0, we knew it could shift.

“We basically took it one game at a time. We didn’t start looking at the end and thinking everything is going to be great. Just really bearing down and focusing on each opponent and taking each game and set of kids you have to play against and give them your best shot. It started rolling from there.

“The conference started growing and the kids understood their roles and really executed throughout the rest of the season. When it got to the end of the season, we made them understand that when you’re the undefeated team, everybody is going to give you their best shot. We were seeing a lot more variant defenses and offenses.

“You’ll see scout film on different teams where they would do the same thing, but all of a sudden against us, they would get out of character and try to do something different. It would make us think a little bit, but it made us stronger as a team to be able to adapt and adjust to every offensive or defensive set that we may come up against.”

Each team has a variety of weapons that can break games open in an instant.

For Strong, junior quarterback LaQuincy Shelton, senior running back Treveon Daniels and senior tight end Byron Maze have been pivotal to the Bulldogs’ success.

“He’s a mainstay,” Wright said of Daniels, who has six touchdowns in Strong’s two playoff wins. “You’ve got to have balance just from my point of view as far as being able to run the ball when you want to and being able to pass the ball when you want to.

“We always preach balance and Treveon has really gained confidence throughout the year whereas he was getting yards but he wasn’t scoring. Moving over to the playoffs, he has been scoring a lot more. His confidence has grown. He’s a great kid. I’m proud of him for stepping up.”

Maze accounted for four touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ win over the Red Devils back in October, and he has become a focal point for opposing defenses down the stretch.

“In our playoff games, we’ve had all of the breaks go our way, so it wasn’t really necessary to keep him in the spotlight,” Wright said. “Some teams that you play, if they can’t stop you, they try the little underhanded tactics to get you injuries here and there, and we were just trying to keep him out of harm’s way.

“If we’ve got the game in hand, it wasn’t an absolute must to give Byron the ball the majority of the game. With this game, we’ve got all guns blazing and we’re going to give it our best shot. If that’s give it to Maze, then we’ll do that, but if someone else has the hot hand, we’ll definitely go there, too.”

The Red Devils counter with a group that will all be returning next year with sophomore Jonah Wilburn at quarterback along with junior running backs Keelan Dobbins and Isaiah Miles, who are also outstanding receivers.

On defense, Dobbins leads the team with 74 tackles and Miles has six interceptions for the Red Devils.

“You can’t coach athleticism and he’s an athlete,” Counce said of Miles. “Sometimes we just let him be Isaiah.”

Junior Dayjon Matlock anchors the defensive line and has 11 sacks.

“He comes off the ball hard,” Counce said. “Defense is his forte. He likes it. He understands it. That’s what he wants to be known for is coming off the ball hard and sacking the quarterback. In eight-man, you get a lot more passing a lot of times, and he’s had a chance to really come off the ball hard. I don’t know if that stat is in there, but he has been offsides a few times, so we’ve had to rein him in there. He does a good job on defense and plays hard.”

Senior Toby Seymour has 10 sacks for the Red Devils, who have 41 total this season. He also ranks second on the team in tackles with 71.

“He’s a senior and he wants to win,” Counce said. “He wants his legacy as a senior and with a group of seniors to go out on a winning note. He plays with reckless abandon sometimes. He reads the ball well. He fills his gap at linebacker. He has a good motor on defense.”

If the Red Devils are to avenge their loss from the regular season against the Bulldogs, Counce said his defense must deliver.

“They’re very athletic. They’re a tough team. They already beat us once,” Counce said. “We have to account for them on every play, especially on offense. They can go the distance at any time. We’ve got to play well on defense. We’ve got to stop No. 1 (Maze). I’ll tell you one thing that impresses me about him is how far he can kick a football.

“He’s talented and can do that kind of stuff. We’ve got to stop the run and then make sure that we don’t get beat over the top. Our work is cut out for us with their athleticism for sure.”

If the Bulldogs are to win the state championship, Wright said it will come down to if his defense can keep Miles and Dobbins in check.

“We were fortunate enough to move up freshmen to help out,” Wright said. “Just studying them, they’re still using the same cast of characters. They may use other people here and there, but they still have that same core group and the big thing is containing Miles and Dobbins.

“We did an excellent job last time, but we didn’t account for the quarterback, so this time we know the quarterback is mobile. We can adapt and adjust. As long as we stop those three, I think we can stop Mountain Pine.

“Offensively, just execute, keep our composure and don’t have any turnovers. That’s a big thing, too. They’re a formidable team. They’re last year’s champion. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

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