So far, Pine Bluff hasn’t been tested in these 6A state playoffs, but the Zebras have still flexed their muscles.
In two games, they have outscored the opposition 120-7. But neither Little Rock Hall (which suffered a 57-0 shutout loss in the first round) nor Benton had a winning record to boast.
Tonight, the Zebras (11-1), ranked No. 2 in 6A by Hootens.com, get a tougher test in third-ranked Jonesboro (9-2) at Jordan Stadium with a trip to the state championship game on the line. It’s the fourth straight year Pine Bluff has played in the semifinals, and the Z’s are hoping to make it to Little Rock for the first time since their 2009 runner-up finish.
Jonesboro is in the semifinals for the second straight season and seeking its first state championship since 1979.
“They’ve got the best quarterback and running back we’ve seen all year,” Bolding said. “They’re big up front on the offensive line. Their defensive line is very physical. They’ve got the best punt returner/kick returner I’ve seen in probably 20 years. They’re a good football team.”
Pine Bluff has faced elite talent in the backfield this season when it faced Alabama commit Altee Tenpenny of North Little Rock. But Bolding is also giving high praise to Jonesboro’s Martin Stafford, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior who has rushed for 1,870 yards and 26 touchdowns, averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
Stafford rushed for 137 yards in a 45-21 win over Lake Hamilton last Friday, the Golden Hurricane’s second straight victory over a team from the 7A/6A-South Conference. But junior quarterback D.J. Anderson led Jonesboro in rushing with 158 yards on 13 carries, surpassing 1,000 yards for the season.
The dangerous return man Bolding mentioned is senior Kevontae Pope, who also leads the team in receiving with 884 yards on 45 catches.
Plenty of weapons for the Hurricane to grab the Zebras’ attention.
“If you’ve got to get kids focused for this, you don’t have a chance,” Bolding said. “If they can’t get ready for this, or you have to do some tricks or something, you ain’t got a chance to win the football game. It’s on them at this point in time.”
The Zebras have won nine straight since losing to North Little Rock, their last seven wins decided by double-digit margins. A big reason for their success has been the passing connection of Rickey Clements to Tyrone Payne, two seniors making the most of their only season with the Pine Bluff football team.
Clements has thrown for 1,324 yards and 13 touchdowns. His main target has been Payne, who leads the team with 470 receiving yards and three scores.
“I’m pleased with the way they contributed this year. They’ve done a good job. I wish I had them all three years, but I’m glad to have had them for this year.”
Pine Bluff also has thrived on the ground with senior wingback Walter Ashley (1,408 total offensive yards) and in pass defense with seniors Devarious Rice and Rakeem Leverett each collecting four interceptions on the season.
Jonesboro (9-2) at Pine Bluff (11-1)
• 7 p.m. today at Jordan Stadium
• Seeds: Jonesboro second in East; Pine Bluff South champion
• Last week: Jonesboro def. Lake Hamilton 45-21; Pine Bluff def. Benton 63-7
• Championship: Winner will play Greenwood or El Dorado at noon Dec. 1 in Little Rock