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Strong enjoying extra week to prepare for title game

by Jason Avery | November 25, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

Bye weeks in November are a reward for stellar regular seasons and come at the outset of the playoffs.

But for Strong, this week’s bye is a special one since they will have an extra week to prepare for the 2A 8-Man state title game against Mountain Pine, which will be played on Dec. 2 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

“It feels outstanding,” Strong coach Sirl Wright of reaching the championship game. “It’s a great tribute to how hard the kids have worked. They were disappointed in the ending of last season, and I challenged them to do all the factors of a great offseason and go enjoy other sports and use the track season to get faster, the weight room to get stronger and the summer to fine-tune all of those skills along with football drills.

“The kids really worked hard and it’s paying off this year. I’m proud of them to make it all the way to the state championship game, but just to remind them that it’s not complete. We’ve still got one more game, so keep grinding and keep fighting and keep doing a good job.”

The Bulldogs are in their first year of playing eight-man football and have been dominant in going 10-0 to reach the state finals.

Of their 10 wins, eight have been by more than double figures, including their playoff wins over Cedar Ridge and Brinkley by a combined score of 96-22.

But at the start of the season, no one could have imagined what was lying ahead for the Bulldogs as they were adapting to the new format.

“Being a traditionalist, 11-man football is all I’ve ever known,” Wright said. “I’ve seen Texas and Oklahoma schools play eight-man, but I had never seen it live. I had seen video and talked to people about it, but I just had the perception that it wasn’t just regular football. Different leagues have different rules, but the way Arkansas has adopted the rules is pretty much the same as 11-man. It’s just the difference is three less people and the dimensions are a little bit tighter width-wise, but it’s still 100 yards.

“When we got into our first game against Hermitage, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t have film on them, they didn’t have film on us, but they had experience playing the game. The kids were amped up about it and showed up that first game. It was definitely football. The licks don’t change as far as tackling and where you can block.

“Some people have their perception that never experienced an eight-man football game that it’s going to be a watered-down version of football, more like flag football or even 7-on-7, but it truly is not. It was an eye-opener that showed me it was still regular football. A few things changed, but overall, the principle of it is still the same. It comes down to blocking and tackling, kids going hard at it and scheming.”

The bye week comes after the Bulldogs had played six straight weeks that started with their 48-30 conference win over Mountain Pine back on Oct. 15.

“When you get toward the end of the season, you get some bumps and bruises by certain players, so that extra bye week does help out,” Wright said. “At the beginning of the season, I tell the kids all the time that you’re going to be the most healthiest on Day 1 of football, and after that, it’s downhill and just trying to maintain and build a tolerance for pain throughout the season. Once you get to the end, you’re pretty much trying to be as healthy as possible, and that bye week does help.”

From a health standpoint, Wright said that the Bulldogs have the usual bumps and bruises all teams still playing have in November.

“Just normal wear and tear,” Wright said. “Just maintaining and keeping kids healthy. From there, just moving forward and focus in and not let the moment overwhelm you. Just embrace it, enjoy the championship semifinal, move forward and really target in on the championship game.”

As far as practices for this week are concerned, Wright said the Bulldogs will be focusing on fundamentals.

“We’re not going full pads,” Wright said. “We’re more so helmets and jerseys or even certain practices, not going in shells, just getting out there and talking.

“A lot of people don’t understand when you get down to a big game, there’s a lot of stuff that you can focus on and retouch on basic principles. It’s a long season and you get away from things by scheming week to week. When it comes down to it, when it’s that one play that you need to be executed, if those kids are locked in on those basic principles, it flows a lot better. You don’t have to call a timeout to readjust.”

Regardless of the outcome of next week’s game, this Thanksgiving is one that won’t be soon forgotten in Strong thanks to their special season. Now they are hoping to finish it off next week.

“It really uplifts the morale,” Wright said of his team’s season. “When you’re on the other side of the pendulum, it kind of kills the morale and the intensity of the program, but when you flip it, it helps out a lot.”

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