As Strong tries to continue its push toward a state title and an unblemished season in its first year of eight-man football, the Bulldogs’ opponent in the semifinals has already accomplished the feat.
Tonight, Strong hosts Brinkley in the semifinals of the 2A 8-Man playoffs at Jerry Burson Field with the winner headed to the state championship game, which will be played on Dec. 2 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Game time is set for 7 p.m.
The Bulldogs (9-0), the No. 1 seed from the South, advanced to the semifinals with a 52-0 win over Cedar Ridge.
Brinkley (6-3), the No. 2 seed from the North, advanced with a 22-8 win over Woodlawn.
This is also a rematch from Oct. 1 when Strong downed Brinkley 32-6 at Jerry Burson Field.
Since losing to the Bulldogs last month, the Tigers have been on a roll, winning their last four games and five of their last six games overall.
“After the Strong game, that next week in practice, we just went back to the basics and started working hard,” Brinkley coach Ethan Baker said. “It got through the kids’ heads and I think they finally bought in after they realized after that game in which what we’ve got to do on the practice field to be successful on Friday nights.”
Sophomore quarterback Mitchell Hicks keyed Brinkley’s win over Woodlawn last week by accounting for over 250 yards combined rushing and passing while throwing touchdown passes to Christian Elliott and Kylan Baker.
“He’s had some growing pains to go through this year, but he’s finally starting to calm down and play some good football,” Baker said of his quarterback. “He was having to learn how to play quarterback in a high school game. He’s a dual threat guy. He can run pretty good and throws the ball well. He’s one that if it comes down to it, we’re going to put the ball in his hands. He’s one of our playmakers.”
With Elliott just two yards shy of going over 1,100 for the year, the Tigers certainly can run the ball, but as their win last week demonstrated, they can move the ball through the air as well.
“Our offense is similar to theirs,” Baker said. “We like to run the ball in which they crowded the line and it opened up the passing lanes a little bit. We were able to have a little bit of success throwing the ball.”
Strong coach Sirl Wright said his defense must find a way to slow down the Tigers’ running game.
“They like to run the ball,” Wright said. “They’ll sprinkle a little pass in there too, but their main bread and butter is split back, just dive off the edge and they’ll run a little option. They have a little motion out of the split backs and just kind of try to have a balanced look so you can’t really key on who is going to get the ball. You’ve got to be balanced on defense and be ready for any side to be attacked at any time.”
Brinkley’s defense, anchored by senior defensive tackle Deanthony Hayward-Foster and fellow senior defensive end Ronnie Byrd, held Woodlawn, who had scored 40 or more points five times this season, to just eight points.
“They’re a hard-nosed, physical football team,” Baker said of the Bears. “They like to run their power sweep and power options out of it. We worked all week on slowing them down. The kids came out and took it upon themselves and played hard and we were able to shut them down.”
Hayward-Foster has emerged as one of the team’s leaders.
“He’s one of our few seniors we’ve got this year in which he’s stepped up and taken on a leadership role on the defense,” Baker said. “He keeps everybody under control and maintaining their responsibilities and just try not to do everything.”
Byrd has shined at defensive end after moving from defensive tackle.
“He’s been a defensive tackle his whole life and we moved him to defensive end in which he’s done a good job of controlling the outside on whichever side he’s on,” Baker said.
A few of those seniors played key roles in Brinkley’s perfect season two years ago.
“Three of the four seniors were contributors on our 2019 team as sophomores,” Baker said. “Three of them got a lot of playing time. They played well. They’ve been with me since they’ve been in seventh grade all the way up. They’re still out there working hard.”
In advancing to the semifinals, the Bulldogs gave Cedar Ridge no chance of scoring an upset by taking a 30-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
“Cedar Ridge is a team that can sneak up on you if you don’t pay attention and take them lightly,” Wright said. “That’s the unique thing about eight-man. You can take some teams lightly and you can look at it in the schedule with certain teams and you would think certain teams would beat other teams, but they may take them lightly or a guy may be hurt and other teams step up and once they get that momentum, it’s kind of hard to stop teams once they get momentum. That was the big emphasis of the week was don’t allow them to have any momentum or even any belief to win the game. Our kids came out and did exactly that. They didn’t allow them to have any belief that they were going to win the game and basically put out the fire before it even started smoking. I’m proud of them of being coachable, listening and growing as a team.”
Treveon Daniels ran for an even 100 yards and three touchdowns on just nine carries in the win.
“He’s come a long way,” Wright said. “We’ve kind of addressed it in film study a lot. I’ll be on him about what he can do to get better, and this generation of kids wants to know why. I showed him the progression throughout the season. He’s always produced for us, but these last few games, he’s starting to pick up the results of scoring with touchdowns. He’s put in that work, he’s paying attention, he’s taking coaching and applying that coaching into his game. He’s getting better week by week. I’m proud of him.”
LaQuincy Shelton went 4-of-6 passing for 83 yards while adding 53 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
“He’s another one that has that high football IQ,” Wright said. “He takes coaching and listens and understands basically what we’re going to do coming into that game. He reads his keys, follows his keys, no matters if it’s offense or defense. He’s ready to play when those lights come on. I’m proud of him.”
Regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game, Baker believes his team’s postseason run will be very beneficial in the long run.
“We’re pretty young this year,” Baker said. “Just having the experience of getting in the playoffs is going to be very helpful for us. With the amount of sophomores we have, their first playoff game they were ever in was last week. Being able to go to the next round and having a chance in it, just experience-wise, I think it will set us up just with the amount of sophomores we have to have pretty good experience for them all the way through high school.”
And those sophomores that comprise the bulk of the Tigers’ roster could be in position to add another banner to the one that honors the undefeated squad from two years ago.
“We’ve got a banner just to let all the kids that were on the team can have something hanging up to be proud of,” Baker said.
For Strong and Brinkley, joining the eight-man ranks has rejuvenated their programs.
“It saved us pretty much,” Baker said. “Our last two years we were in 11-man, we had 14 kids on the team. About Week 8, we’re just sitting there trying to survive, just to make it through the season so we didn’t have to call and forfeit by the end of the season due to low numbers. They had it for one year before we got in it, and it made our numbers go up a little bit. We’re still at 16 kids, but our kids are seeing a little bit of success. It’s just helped the overall program for the kids to come out and play.”
At first, fans were a little skittish on the notion of eight-man football, but that has changed.
“Once we declared for it, the community was about half and half,” Baker said. “Then once we came out and had a little bit of success, the community started coming around more. They were skittish at first, but they came around once they saw. I don’t think they really understood what eight-man football was at first in which after they came out and saw a game and realized that it’s real football, just a few less people on the field, they started to get behind us a little bit.”
For the Tigers to have success, Baker said his team cannot have turnovers.
“We’re just going to have to try to take care of the football and control the clock a little bit, just try to keep it out of their hands,” Baker said. “Strong doesn’t have many numbers, but the ones they’ve got out there can certainly play. They’re big, fast and physical. They’re just an overall good football team.”
For the Bulldogs to advance, Wright said his defense must find a way to slow down the Tigers’ offense.
“Just keep those assignments locked and ready, keying on your keys, playing sound, fundamental football and not giving them any type of leeway because if you give Brinkley an edge, they can run pretty good,” Wright said. “They’re a team that has size and athleticism. They’re well-rounded. They’ve got some good kids, good coaching and they’re going to be a formidable opponent. They’ve got great athletes, and if you get them out in space, they’re hard to deal with, so what we’ve got to do is just contain them on defense and continue to execute on offense.”