Pine Bluff’s Walter Ashley takes the handoff from quarterback Rickey Clements during Friday’s 24-0 win over Jonesboro in a Class 6A semifinal at Jordan Stadium. Ashley and Clements are two of 29 seniors on Pine Bluff’s team. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
Bobby Bolding could see it when this year’s Pine Bluff senior players were in junior high — that this group would compete for a state championship.
“This is a very special senior class,” said Bolding, who’ll coach the Zebras in their second 6A title game in four years next Saturday in Little Rock. “There’s 29 of them. We felt like we could see it in the seventh grade, and if we could hold them together through and see them through, we felt like they would be very good when they were seniors.”
This senior class followed up the 2009 runner-up team’s success with three more trips to the semifinal round and a 30-13 record. They’ve led Pine Bluff to 10 straight victories, winning the last eight by no fewer than 15 points each while holding opponents to single digits, and have outscored Little Rock Hall, Benton and Jonesboro 144-7 in this year’s playoffs.
“I tell our kids, offense brings a crowd, defense wins games and special teams wins championships,” Bolding said. “Our defense has played exceptionally well since the North Little Rock game (a 47-10 loss in Week 3).”
The defense has been aided by a senior-laden secondary featuring Devarious Rice, Rakeem Leverett and Deandre Gridley and a standout senior defensive end in Cameron Jackson. On offense, the passing tandem of Rickey Clements and Tyrone Payne — both of whom never played high school football until this season — have helped keep the Zebras moving.
Senior wingback Walter Ashley, who has more than 1,100 yards rushing this season, attributes his class’ success over the years to hard work and dedication.
“We pretty much had the same starters since eighth grade, so we’ve just been practicing all together and coming together as a bond,” he said.
Now, they get to cap their high school careers with a shot at Pine Bluff’s first state championship since 1995 after being stopped twice in the semifinal round.
“We never looked at that as a monkey on our back,” Bolding said. “There are coaches on teams that never go to the semis. We’ve been four years in a row, been one of those years and are going back, so we feel very blessed to be where we’re at.”
Turnovers shape up 4A quarterfinal
Two fumbles were crucial turning points in Friday’s Class 4A quarterfinal game between Stuttgart and Warren. The first put Warren on the scoreboard and the second helped clinched the game for Stuttgart.
Leading 7-0 near the end of the first half, Stuttgart was threatening to score again with a first-and-10 on the 18-yard line. But on third down, Warren junior defensive back Odis Miller forced Stuttgart junior Tyler Luster to fumble.
Miller raced 95 yards for a touchdown and after a missed extra point, Warren trailed 7-6 with about 25 seconds left.
“It made the ball game really tight going in,” Warren head coach Bo Hembree said. “Our defense was bending but not breaking for us all night. And that fumble was a huge break for us.”
With about 2 minutes left in the third quarter, Warren was threatening to score after moving the ball to the Stuttgart 4, thanks in part to a pass interference penalty. After a holding penalty, Warren was facing a second-and-goal from the 15 when junior quarterback Drake Jones fumbled and senior Eddie Simmons recovered.
Three plays later, senior wide receiver Dre’lon Ice broke for a 65-yard touchdown to give the Ricebirds a 21-6 lead. Ice rushed for 129 yards on 10 carries.
Ball control benefits Ricebirds
Stuttgart (12-1) rolled up 425 offensive yards and allowed only 162. The Ricebirds chewed up almost 6 minutes of clock during a 99-yard drive that spanned the first and second quarters, before taking a 7-0 lead thanks to a 5-yard touchdown by senior quarterback Dontrell Brown with 10:46 left in the first half.
Warren could not get anything going offensively in the first half. Sophomore running back Kilay Cox entered Friday with 1,538 rushing yards but managed just 56 yards on 14 carries in the quarterfinal game.
“Kilay had a great year,” Hembree said. “We are really young on offense and it showed last night.
“We have seven sophomores who are starters on offense and we just couldn’t get anything going.”
On their first possession of the second half, Stuttgart took a seven-point lead when Brown capped an eight-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run with 5:39 remaining in the third quarter.
Brown finished the game with 125 yards on 23 carries and was 7 of 10 passing for 87 yards.
“All credit goes to Stuttgart,” Hembree said. “They had a great game plan and they executed well.”
Stuttgart will host Prairie Grove at 7 p.m. this Friday.