By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
SEARCY – It’s not back to the drawing board, but a time to refresh before starting the postseason run for the Heber Springs Panthers.
Harding Academy converted two fumble recoveries into touchdowns and drove 49 yards during the first quarter and claimed at least a share of the 2-4A Conference championship and a top seed for the playoffs by defeating the Panthers 41-14 at First Security Stadium on Friday.
The loss ended a 5-game win streak for Heber Springs.
The Panthers (5-3 overall, 4-1 in 2-4A Conference) will be the conference’s No. 2 seed and host either Lincoln or Gentry in the first round on Nov. 10.
The Wildcats (9-0 overall, 5-0 in 2-4A Conference), who won the 2020 and 2021 Class 3A state championships and lost to Malvern in the 2022 Class 4A title game, will host the No. 5 seed from 1-4A.
One game remains in the regular season. The Panthers will host Riverview at 7 p.m. Friday, while the Wildcats will play at Cave City.
“Good teams make you do things that you don’t want to do,” Heber Springs first-year head coach Van Paschal said. “We knew they were a good team, but it’s hard to tell for sure until you play them. They have everything going in the right direction.”
Paschal continued and said Harding Academy players and coaches were very complimentary of how the Panthers played.
“They were very complimentary of our players after the game about how they are playing and accomplished this season,” he said. “I expect play well against Riverview. These players have we will respond and answered the bell every time after losses this season.”
Heber Springs held the Wildcats to 84 yards rushing, but Wildcat quarterback Owen Miller completed 16 of 19 passes for 235 and two touchdowns. Miller also rushed for 90 yards and two more scores.
Isaac Baker became Miller’s favorite receiver with Jack Citty, one of the team’s leading receivers, was unable to play because of injury. Baker caught seven passes for 154 yards and one touchdown.
Harding Academy held a 373-125 yards advantage in total offense.
Parker Brown rushed five times for 81 yards for the Panthers. Weston Warden returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown during the first half. The Panthers were 0-of-4 passing.
“We had spurts of good plays,” said Paschal, referring to Brown’s runs of 15 and 58 runs and Warden’s kickoff return during the first half. “We would have a great play here and then a bad play. This game was a measuring stick for us. We just got to move forward and keep improving.”
Harding Academy took the lead after recovering a fumble at the Heber Springs 35-yard line early in the first quarter.
Two penalties moved the Wildcats backwards before Miller scrambled for 12 yards on second down and University of Arkansas commit Wyatt Simmons, who lined up in the Wildcat formation, gained seven yards for a first down.
Simmons finished the drive by running 11 yards to the Panther 1 and scored on the next play with 7:13 left in the first quarter. Griffin Thomas kicked the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
Later in the quarter, Kyler Hoover’s 21-yard punt return put Harding in scoring position at the Heber Springs 45-yard line. Miller received the snap, ran right and scored on a 45-yard run with 2:30 to go in the quarter. Thomas booted the extra point, increasing the lead to 14-0.
Harding Academy cashed in again on a fumble recovery and drove 75 yards for its next score. Simmons scored from the 1-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Thomas kicked the extra point for a 21-0 lead going into the second quarter.
Issac Baker caught a short pass from Miller and ran 68 yards, giving Harding Academy a first down at the Heber Springs 18. Two plays later, Miller connected on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Endy McGalliard. The Wildcats failed on a two-point conversion try and led 27-0 with 8:52 left in the first half.
After the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, the Panthers decided to accept the penalty, and it paid dividends. The ball hit on the 20 and bounced backwards 10 yards where Warden retrieved and scored on a 90-yard kickoff return.
Gideon Tate’s kick for the extra point was blocked as the Panthers trailed, 27-6.
Hoover nearly duplicated Warden’s return on the ensuing kickoff, returning it 59 yards to the Heber Springs 24. Three plays later, Miller passed to Hoover for a 22-yard touchdown with 7:25 left. Thomas’ successful kick increased Harding Academy’s lead to 34-6.
The Wildcats drove 67 yards for its final score of the first half as Miller scored on a 14-yard run with 1:18 left in the first half. Thomas kicked the extra point for a 41-6 halftime lead.
Backup quarterback Zack Parker put the Panthers on the board in the fourth quarter by scoring on a 2-yard keeper with 7:48 to play. Parker also ran for a 2-point conversion.
Paschal said the team will turn its attention to Riverview.
“We responded positively after the two earlier losses (Clinton and Southside Batesville),” he said. “I expect them to be ready for Riverview, which has a good team. We will fix the things that we didn’t do well. It’s important to win against Riverview and build momentum going into the playoffs.”
HEBER SPRINGS AT HARDING ACADEMY October 27, 2023 TEAM STATS TIME OF POSSESSION: Heber Springs 23:42, Harding 24:18 TOTAL FIRST DOWNS: Heber Springs 7, Harding 18 BY RUSH: Heber Springs 7, Harding 6 BY PASS: Heber Springs 0, Harding 11 BY PENALTY: Heber Springs 0, Harding 1 TEAM RUSHING: Heber Springs 35/125/1/3.6, Harding 23/84/4/3.7 TEAM PASSING: Heber Springs 0/4-0-0/0, Harding 21/27-289-2/0 TOTAL OFFENSE: Heber Springs 39/125/3.2, Harding 50/373/7.5 3RD CONVERSION: Heber Springs 2/7, Harding 3/5 4TH CONVERSION: Heber Springs 0/1, Harding 0/1 RED-ZONE: Heber Springs 1/1, Harding 4/4 TURNOVERS: Heber Springs 3, Harding 1 POINTS OFF TURNOVERS: Heber Springs 8, Harding 14 FUMBLES/LOST: Heber Springs 4/3, Harding 2/1 PENALTIES: Heber Springs 3/15, Harding 5/30 KICKOFF RETURNS: Heber Springs 1/90/1, Harding 1/59 PUNT RETURNS: Heber Springs 0/0, Harding 1/22 PUNTS: Heber Springs 4/176/44.0, Harding 1/34 PUNTS INSIDE 20: Heber Springs 1, Harding 0 SACKS: Heber Springs 0, Harding 1/7 TACKLES FOR LOSS: Heber Springs 8/32, Harding 12/54 INDIVIDUAL STATS RUSHING: Heber Springs, Bryce Seigrist 5/4, Weston Warden 3/1, Parker Brown 5/81, Xander Lindley 10/(-20), Logan Rutledge 3/9, Dyce Young 3/8, Nate Eaton 3/33, Emmett Dwyer 1/13, Zachary Parker 2/(-4)/1. Harding Academy, Wyatt Simmons 5/28/2, Owen Miller 4/90/2, Isaac Baker 6/16, Christian Bubbus 2/0, Sam Beehn 2/0, Team 4/(-50). PASSING: Heber Springs, Xander Lindley 0/4-0-0/0. Harding Academy, Owen Miller 16/19-235-2/0, Cam Pryor 5/8-54-0/0. RECEIVING: Harding Academy, Isaac Baker 7/154/1/22.0, Kyler Hoover 5/40/1, Endy McGalliard 4/41/1, Cole Sivia 1/30, Joseph Myles 1/9, Christian Bubbus 1/8, Trenton Hall 1/8, Samuel Swindle 1/(-1) KICKOFF RETURNS: Heber Springs, Weston Warden 1/90/1. Harding Academy, Kyler Hoover 1/59. PUNT RETURNS: Harding Academy, Kyler Hoover 1/22 ALL-PURPOSE YARDS: Heber Springs, Weston Warden 91. Harding Academy, Isaac Baker 170, Kyler Hoover 121. TOTAL OFFENSE: Harding Academy, Owen Miller 325 PUNTING: Heber Springs, Gideon Tate 4/176/44.0/1 (Long 51). Harding Academy, Griffin Thomas 1/34. SCORING PAT KICKS: Gideon Tate 0/1 (Blocked) FIELD GOALS: None POINTS: Weston Warden 6, Zachary Parker 8 DEFENSIVE STATS SACKS: None INDIVIDUAL SACK TOTAL: None FUMBLE RECOVERIES: Logan Lozeau FORCED FUMBLES: None INTERCEPTIONS: None PBU: Emmett Dwyer QB HURRIES: Jordan Tidwell, Nate Eaton TACKLES (U/A/TFL - TOTAL) Brodie Basford 2 4 0 6 Weston Warden 6 1 1 7 Logan Rutledge 4 0 0 4 Elijah Jones 0 2 1 2 Nate Eaton 0 1 1 1 Jordan Tidwell 1 1 0 2 Emmett Dwyer 1 1 0 2 Carter Julian 0 3 1 3 Parker Brown 2 1 0 3 Corbin Jones 3 1 0 4 Xander Lindley 1 0 0 1 Jacob McMullin 1 0 0 1 Team 2 0 2 2 Greg Williams 0 1 0 1 Caleb Carr 0 2 0 2 Gavin Mize 2 3 2 5 Zachary Parker 1 0 1 1 Seth Dudeck 0 1 0 1 Dyce Young 1 1 1 2 Logan Lozeau 0 1 1 1