It’s been a long time since a Jefferson County public school has won a football state championship.
In fact, most members of the Pine Bluff football team weren’t even alive when the Zebras completed their three-peat of the AAAA state championship in 1995. Watson Chapel won the AAA title the next year, the most recent county team to win state.
Pine Bluff has come close several times since head coach Bobby Bolding took over in 2007. Championship game appearances in 2009 and 2012 both ended with seven-point losses — first to El Dorado, 27-20, and then to Greenwood, 51-44.
Well, this year the Zebras avenged one of those losses with a 37-34 win over the Bulldogs, two weeks ago in the semifinals.
Tonight, Pine Bluff can avenge the other loss when it faces 7A/6A-South rival El Dorado in the 6A state championship game at 6:30 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
“We look forward to playing El Dorado,” Bolding said. “It’s a great rivalry.
“Our kids and their kids compete hard against each other. Our coaches are all friends with each other. It’s a great game when we play them, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Not only can Pine Bluff (9-3-1) avenge its ’09 title game loss on Saturday, but it can also make up for a loss to El Dorado (8-5) less than two months ago. That loss cost Pine Bluff a conference championship and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The 21-14 defeat at El Dorado’s Memorial Stadium just might have been a blessing in disguise, though, for the young, inexperienced Zebras. The team hasn’t lost since that game in late October and, according to senior Stephen Watson, grew much closer following the defeat.
“After that loss we started to connect together and bond with each other,” Watson said. “We just started clicking.
“That’s what’s made us very dominant over the past few games.”
At a press conference last week, El Dorado coach Scott Reed and senior quarterback Clayton Waldrum discussed the school’s rivalry with Pine Bluff. A rivalry that the Wildcats have gotten the better of the past few seasons, including winning four of the past six meetings.
“We’ve played them twice in a year before,” Reed said. “Every year (our regular season meeting) always means a lot.
“It’s always late in the year — for a while it was the last game of the season — and it’s always been for the conference title or something like that.”
The Oct. 25 meeting was the first time Waldrum had led the Wildcats against the Zebras, but he understands the recent history of the two programs.
“We know that every time we go to Pine Bluff or Pine Bluff comes here it’s going to be a last-second, down-to-the-wire game,” Waldrum said. “And we’re prepared to have a battle every year we play Pine Bluff.”
Each team had to fight their own battle two weeks ago to reach the final.
Both advanced to the championship game thanks to game-winning field goals as time expired. Pine Bluff senior Austin McGehee hit a 43-yarder to stun Greenwood, while El Dorado junior Trent Harter connected on a 29-yarder to edge Jonesboro, 23-21.
“First half we were up 17-0 and felt good and had just shut them down,” Reed about his team’s game. “The second half Jonesboro came out, got some momentum and moved the ball. They got back in the game.
“All of the sudden you look up and there’s four minutes left in the game and we’re down 21-20 and we’d had a field goal blocked.”
As for the Zebras, McGehee’s kick capped a wild fourth quarter that saw Pine Bluff outscore the defending 6A champions 17-3 to overturn a 31-20 deficit in the final seven minutes.
After a Ladarius Skelton touchdown pass to Tyran Simmons pulled the Zebras within five points, a short run by Trevor Hunt and two-point conversion by Skelton gave Pine Bluff a three-point lead.
The lead was short lived as Greenwood tied the game on a field goal with just over a minute to play.
In those wins, both teams showed how far they’ve come since their Week 8 meeting.
“We’ve grown as a unit really,” Waldrum said. “We’ve been a little bit more physical.
“We’ve been able to run the ball a little bit better and just executed. That’s all it was just execution and we got a lot better at that. The last few games it’s shown up (and) in the playoffs it’s shown up.”
El Dorado’s offense was very underwhelming in its win over Pine Bluff. The team only mustered 21 points — seven of which came on a kickoff return — despite Pine Bluff turning the ball over seven times, including five lost fumbles.
The Zebras looked like the better side, and in most statistics they proved to be the superior team, on that night at least, but the turnovers kept them from holding on to a 14-0 lead.
Despite rushing for 286 yards and throwing for 103 more, the offense couldn’t bail out a hard-luck defense that only allowed 73 yards rushing.
Since that time, Pine Bluff’s offense has improved considerably and proved the turnovers were merely a fluke. Even still, the team’s run-first philosophy hasn’t changed and will likely prove successful on Saturday.
The deciding factor will be how well Skelton and the three-headed monster that is Hunt, Romar Reades and Kentorious White do when it comes to taking care of the football. If they can hold onto it, the chances Pine Bluff ends its title drought and exacts some revenge on Saturday night will skyrocket.
The ground-and-pound attack is one of the things Watson said is a key to victory.
“We can’t have no turnovers on offense,” the offensive lineman said. “We have to have our eyes right on defense and can’t give up big plays.
“We just got to do what we do best, which is run the ball.”