By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
The Heber Springs Panthers will go into a season finale for the second straight year needing a win to earn a playoff berth.
Heber Springs finished the home football schedule by falling to Harding Academy 39-13 at Panther Stadium on Friday. The Wildcats (5-0 in 2-4A Conference, 9-0 overall) clinched at least a share of the 2-4A Conference championship and a No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
Heber Springs (1-4 in 2-4A Conference, 2-6 overall) will play at Riverview (1-4 in 2-4A Conference, 2-7 overall) on Friday, with the winner advancing to the playoffs.
With a win, the Panthers would play at 4-4A Conference champion Haskell Harmony Grove in the first round of the state playoffs on Nov. 11.
Harding Academy built a 21-0 lead against Heber Springs by the end of the first quarter and scored touchdowns on its first four possessions. The Wildcats added a field goal and a fumble return for a touchdown during the second quarter.
Heber Springs scored two second-half touchdowns against Harding Academy reserves.
“That’s right,” said Heber Springs coach Todd Wood when asked about playoff possibilities. “It was part of the decision-making with some players in this game. We need to get healthy. One of our goals is still in our hands. We need to go and win at Riverview. We will find a way to get into the playoffs.”
The Panthers were not at full strength against the Wildcats with running back Parker Brown held out because of a knee injury. Senior linebacker Kenan Sneed started and played one snap on senior night, but missed the rest of the game with a broken toe.
“Parker’s status is uncertain at this time,” Wood said. “Kenan played briefly to keep his streak of starting every game. We will try and figure everything out for the Riverview game.”
Harding Academy scored on drives of 60, 69 and 61 yards during the first quarter. Owen Miller threw for touchdowns of 20 and 16 yards to Landon Koch and a 5-yard shovel pass to Kyler Hoover. Kyle Ferrie, a Mississippi State commit, kicked the extra point following the scores.
Miller, who was 15-of-18 passing for 187 yards, completed his first nine passes of the first quarter for 144 yards. Koch caught six passes for 99 yards.
The Wildcats finished the first half with 209 yards of total offense and 14 first downs.
The Panthers had minus 8 yards of total offense and two first downs over the first two quarters against the Wildcat starters.
“Harding is ranked No. 1 in most state polls for Class 4A and an outstanding team,” Wood said. “They know what to do in big games and won the last three Class 3A state championships.”
For the game, Harding completed 15-of-19 passes for 187 yards and rushed for 78 yards on 23 attempts. Heber Springs connected on 7-of-12 passes for 53 yards and 87 yards rushing on 25 carries.
Gideon Tate rushed 11 times for 76 yards, while Easton Cusick had 43 yards on four attempts.
Xander Lindley completed 4-of-6 passes for 33 yards. Lindley, who was sacked twice, ran 13 times for a minus 41 yards. Logan Rutledge caught a 35-yard pass.
In the second quarter, Hoover caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Miller. Ferrie, who was seven-of-seven on touchbacks on kickoffs, kicked the extra point and later made a 29-yard field goal.
The Wildcats scored their final touchdown when a high snap over Lindley’s head was retrieved by Wyatt Simmons, the son of Harding University coach Paul Simmons, and returned 37 yards. Holder Jack Citty picked up a low snap and ran for a 2-point conversion.
“You have to be hitting on all cylinders when playing Harding,” Wood said. “It was all about execution, and we didn’t execute well in areas. We will keep working to improve and move to the next game.”
Heber Springs scored at the end of a 7-play, 95-yard drive late in the third quarter. Tate’s 39-yard run gave the Panthers working room on the first play of the series. Cusick, who moved to quarterback for the second half, rushed for 20 yards and a first down at the Harding Academy 36-yard line.
Staying with the running game, Tate gained 27 yards on the next three plays for a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line. Two plays later, Tate scored on a 6-yard carry. The kick for the conversion try was unsuccessful because of a bad snap.
Heber Springs converted a fumble recovery at the Wildcat 29-yard line that set up the second touchdown. Cusick ran for 17 yards and three more running plays set up a fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line.
Cusick scored on the next play. Tate kicked the extra point.
“Easton is a guy who is ready to play every position,” Wood said. “He played well, and I was proud of how he moved the offense down the field. He was able to score a touchdown on senior night.”
Wood also liked Tate’s performance at running back.
“Tate is a hard runner,” Wood said. “He will spin and make good moves.”
Twenty-two freshmen joined the Panther roster after completion of the junior high school season.
Bryce Seigrist threw two passes to Eli Buffalo for 16 yards. Cooper Holmes contributed a 9-yard rushing carry.
“It was good to get the freshmen into the game,” Wood said. “That will benefit us not only for the rest of this season, but the future.”