LITTLE ROCK — The number 7 is often considered lucky, but for Pine Bluff it’s been a curse.
The Zebras have reached the state championship game three times under head coach Bobby Bolding. Each time Pine Bluff has come up 7 points short.
On Saturday, Pine Bluff came just as close as the 2009 and 2012 teams to winning the school’s first state title since 1995.
Pine Bluff made the big plays, but couldn’t make the small ones as El Dorado won the 6A championship 31-24 at War Memorial Stadium.
“They whipped us at the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball,” Bolding said. “That was the deciding factor in the game.”
Pine Bluff (9-4-1) had a chance to tie the game late, but sophomore quarterback Ladarius Skelton came up a half-yard shy on a fourth-and-19 play with just over a minute remaining to turn the ball over on downs.
El Dorado senior quarterback Clayton Waldrum, the game’s Most Valuable Player, took a knee and earned the Wildcats (9-5) their fourth state title in five years.
“It’s amazing,” Waldrum said. “I’m speechless right now.
“I really don’t know what to say right now.”
Early on it looked like Pine Bluff might run away with the game as it held a 10-0 lead with 4 minutes left in the opening quarter.
A 46-yard run by Romar Reades and a 40-yard field goal by Austin McGehee had the Zebras in the driver’s seat, but Pine Bluff’s offense wouldn’t score the rest of the game.
After McGehee’s kick, El Dorado’s offense came alive and rolled off 24 straight points.
“They were up on us 14-0 the first time we played,” said El Dorado coach Scott Reed. “But that’s been our kids m.o.; they just keep playing.
“It kind of scares you at times, because it’s like they don’t ever look at the scoreboard.
“They just keep playing.”
After going three-and-out, the Wildcats finally picked up a first down and became unstoppable for the final 16 minutes of the first half.
A 12-yard touchdown pass from Waldrum to Ty Owens capped El Dorado’s first successful drive. Trent Harter’s extra point pulled the Wildcats within 10-7.
Following a Pine Bluff punt, Waldrum led El Dorado on an 89-yard drive.
A reverse by Owens on third down got the Wildcats to the 1-yard line, and then Waldrum finished the drive with a QB sneak. Harter’s PAT gave El Dorado a 14-10 lead with 9:35 left in the second quarter.
Another defensive stand by El Dorado forced a punt by McGehee. The snap was high and went through the senior’s hands.
El Dorado’s Braxton Manning recovered the ball at the Pine Bluff 5. Two plays later Waldrum scooted in from 5 yards out, but a holding penalty backed the Wildcats up to the 18.
Facing third-and-goal, Waldrum connected with Owens for the second time. Harter’s point after gave El Dorado a 21-10 lead.
After a Pine Bluff punt, the Zebras defense finally stopped the Wildcats from reaching the end zone. Harter, though, booted a 33-yard field goal to give El Dorado the 24-10 lead with 3 minutes left in the opening half.
The Wildcats looked set to add to its lead just before halftime. Harter and the field-goal unit ran on the field with time winding down to attempt a 52-yarder.
The play, which could have given El Dorado a three-score lead, turned out to be a huge moment for Pine Bluff.
Reades blocked the kick and Greg Harvey scooped it up and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the opening half. McGehee added the extra point and suddenly Pine Bluff trailed by just 7 points at the break.
The Zebras, though, couldn’t carry the momentum into the second half as they went scoreless in the third quarter.
While Pine Bluff’s offense was struggling, the Zebras’ defense kept them in the game with a bend-but-don’t-break style of play.
El Dorado finally broke it on Waldrum’s third touchdown pass of the game, this one to junior Dadraques Harris from 24 yards out, to put the Wildcats up 31-17 with 2:52 left in the third quarter.
A huge kickoff return by David Beasley had Pine Bluff back in business, though. The 65-yard return coupled with a 5-yard facemask call set the Zebras up at the Wildcat 26.
Skelton picked up a pair of first downs with his legs to give Pine Bluff a first-and-goal at the 6. Back-to-back runs by Reades and Beasley netted no yardage as the third quarter came to a close.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Trevor Hunt rushed to the 1. Pine Bluff had no choice but to go for it on fourth down. A false start penalty backed the Zebras up the 6, and Skelton’s pass to Will Gragg fell incomplete.
After an incomplete pass by Waldrum to start the drive, Reades came up with another huge play.
After getting around his blocker, the sophomore brought Waldrum down from behind and knocked the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. Reades was able to recover the ball in the end zone for a touchdown and McGehee’s PAT pulled the Zebras back within 31-24 with 10:37 to play in the game.
Both defenses clamped down as the game turned into a field-position battle and punting contest.
Pine Bluff started its final drive at its own 22-yard line with 3:30 left. The Zebras marched to the Wildcats’ 42-yard line before Skelton was taken down for a 9-yard loss. After an incompletion, Pine Bluff faced a fourth-and-19 from its own 49.
Skelton dropped back as every eligible receiver went deep. The sophomore saw space open up on the left side and took off. The end result was Pine Bluff dropping its third straight title game by one possession.