Panther Game Day: Harding Academy comes to town

Heber Springs’ Austin Winchester fights for yardage in a preseason scrimmage last month at Beebe. The Panthers open their 2021 campaign tonight at home against Harding Academy. PHILIP SEATON PHOTO

By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY

Heber Springs will begin its 100th season of football against one of its oldest rivals.

The Panthers will host two-time defending Class 3A champion Harding Academy at 7 p.m. Friday in the delayed season opener at Panther Stadium.
Newport canceled last week’s scheduled opening game to Heber Springs because of Covid-19 reasons. Nonconference games not played for Covid reasons are counted as non-contests, while conference games will be counted as forfeit wins or losses.

HARDING ACADEMY (1-1) AT HEBER SPRINGS (0-0)
PANTHER STADIUM
KICKOFF: 7 p.m.
LAST WEEK: Heber Springs was off; Harding Academy lost at Valley View 31-30
LAST MEETING: 2019 at Harding Academy, a 45-6 win by the Wildcats
SERIES: Harding Academy leads 36-14

NOTES: With Newport canceling the opener last week, tonight's opener will be the latest first game for Heber Springs since Sept. 11, 1959, when the Panthers beat Clinton, 25-0 ... Heber Springs has not won a season-opener since 2015 (a 35-20 win at Clinton). The Panthers last home-opening win came in 2014 with a 29-16 win over Clinton ... Heber Springs is 0-4 all-time in season-openers against Harding Academy ... Besides being the 100th season of Panther football, the opener tonight begins the 60th year of Panther Stadium. The Stadium opened on Sept. 1, 1962, when the Panthers dropped a 7-6 decision to McCrory ... Heber Springs is 3-16 all-time at Panther Stadium against Harding Academy ... The teams first met in 1951, the first season that Harding Academy had football, as conference foes. The two teams were part of the 2B conference. The two teams would be part of the 2B conference for 17 seasons with the Wildcats winning 11 of the 17 games ... Harding Academy is a 3A school but with a new rule passed by the Arkansas Activities Association this summer based on performance of private schools using a points system, the Wildcats have already accrued enough points that they will be moving up to class 4A next season. Those private schools that move up will be added as the ninth team to any conference they are assigned to. All indications are that the Panthers and Wildcats will be conference foes next season. The AAA will release next season's conference assignments after the completion of this season. 

“It was disappointing when we learned that Newport would be unable to play us, but the players quickly turned their attention to Harding Academy,” Panther coach Todd Wood said. “The extra time gave us an opportunity to let players gain experience at playing different positions, which will help us when starting conference play.”

The Wildcats (1-1) are coming off a 31-30 loss at Class 5A Valley View in Jonesboro.

Harding Academy had major graduation losses on offense, but the Wildcats have been productive through two games.

Junior quarterback Kade Smith, who started at safety during most of last season, leads the offense. Smith has completed 32-of-42 passes for 477 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.

Andrew Miller is the leading rusher for the Wildcats with 23 carries for 96 yards and three touchdowns. Jackson Fox is Smith’s favorite receiver with 11 catches for 241 yards and one touchdown.

“Harding reloads, not rebuilds,” Wood said. “The new guys have not miss a beat. They still play with a lot of discipline and also are very aggressive. Harding will have an advantage with two games under its belt.”

Linebacker Levi Mercer and end Eli Wallis lead the Harding Academy defense with 11 tackles each. The Wildcats, who have allowed 39 points in two games, return nine of 11 starters.

“We know most of Harding’s experience returns was on defense,” Wood said. “But offensively, they have not missed a beat.”

Wood feels more comfortable about his team with an offseason of weight room work, spring practice and summer workouts.

“We are farther ahead than at this time last year,” Wood said. “We understand our roles, plays and assignments better.”

The Panthers will start an all-sophomore backfield with quarterback Xander Lindley and running back Parker Brown. Lindley was a starting receiver for last season’s successful junior high school team, though he did play some at quarterback as an eighth-grader, and Brown started at running back. Gideon Tate, another sophomore, and senior Jackson West also will see action in the backfield.

Two starters return on the offensive line — left guard Peyton Owens and left tackle Thad Bray. Tristan Thissen will start at right guard and Corbin Jones at right tackle. Sophomore Joenah Cordell was named the starting center in the place of Zach Thomas, who is sidelined because of illness for at least two more weeks.

Gus Hannah and Easton Cusick lead an experience receiving corp. Dalton Yancey, another sophomore, Austin Winchester and Chris Edwards will be among other players to watch in the passing game.

“Lindley developed with a strong arm during the summer,” Wood said. “He continues to learn how the offense works. We needed a quarterback with mobility and who can make plays downfield when the pocket breaks down. Bray and Owens are solid players on the line. The players have worked hard and ready for the season to start.”

On defense, Lucas Langster and Jones will start at the ends with Blaze Emerson at nose guard. Chris Benton, who was expected to start on the defensive line, is sidelined indefinitely with a hand injury.

Kenan Sneed, the leading tackler for the Panthers last season, leads the linebacking corps. Thissen will start at the other inside linebacker. Chris Roberts, Hayden Johnson, Hayden Davis and Tate will split time at the two outside linebackers.

Edwards will start at cornerback with Zane Lozeau and Zack Parker splitting time at the other cornerback. Gage Buford and Colton Turley are the starters at the safeties.

“Sneed is the leader of the defense,” Wood said. “Hayden Johnson will start at outside linebacker. He’s small but makes up for it with his speed and aggressive player. Langster returns on the defensive line. I expect Cordell and Emerson to contribute. Owens and Bray also will play on the defensive line. Thissen will play at inside linebacker.”

Wood said the team is ready, and he expects a good performance.

“We need to  get the season going and learn our weaknesses,” he said. “It will help in preparing for the conference season. One of our downfalls last year was quick turnovers. We must execute and move the ball to stay in games.”

Panthers continue to work toward opener

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By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY


Heber Springs coach Todd Wood and his staff hopes to learn answers after the Panthers tangle in a benefit football scrimmage at Beebe on Tuesday.
Action will start at 6 p.m. with the teams participating in sets of plays on offense and defense. The scrimmage will conclude with the two teams playing for two quarters.

Wood, who was 2-9 in his first year as head coach, and the staff is optimistic that the team will enjoy success during the 2021 season.

“One of the big changes has been a spring camp and summer workouts going into fall practice,” Wood said when asked about the team’s progress. “We are more advanced at this point than last year. .”

Wood said the addition of one coach to the staff helps to spread teaching responsibility among coaches with players at all positions. Ryan Bridges, who previously coached at White Hall, is working primarily with the defensive line. He also is the school’s new baseball coach.

One of the big questions on offense going into the season is determining a starting quarterback. Wood said senior John McBroome, who started two games last season, and sophomore Xander Lindley have emerged as the top two candidates. Wood hopes for a starter to emerge from the scrimmage.

“John has a little more experience with the offense,” Wood said. “Xander was a receiver on last year’s successful junior high team, but he has prior quarterbacking experience. Xander has a good arm and a lot of speed. We plan to give them equal reps at Tuesday’s scrimmage. We also will take at look at Wyatt Winchester.”

Jackson West and sophomore Parker Brown are battling for the starting role at running back. West and Brown also are in the plans at receiver.

“Jackson is slightly ahead at running back,” Wood said. “We also plan to look at Gideon Tate at running back.”

The receiving corps may be the most experience group of players. With a year in the system, Wood believes they will have a bigger impact this season

“Gus Hannah is one of our fastest players on the team and runs excellent routes,” Wood said. “Easton Cusick gained speed and size during the offseason. Dalton Yancey played well for the junior high team last year. Austin Winchester can play a role and will get playing time. Chris Edwards may play at receiver and also start at cornerback. We need to figure out how to use all of the players.”

Three starters return on the offensive line — center Zach Thomas, left guard Peyton Owens and left tackle Thad Bray. Tristan Thissen is the leading candidate at right guard and Corbin Jones at right tackle.

Wood said Lucas Langster, who will start at defensive end, is the backup behind Owens. Blaze Emerson is the likely backup at right guard.

“Thad is our anchor on the line,” Wood said. “Zach can make the calls for the line. We are thin in numbers on the line, but we have players to fill all positions.”

Wood expects the defense will be improved and trying to limit the number of players playing both ways.

“We are looking for effort from the defense,” said Wood when asked about objectives of Tuesday’s scrimmage. “We want to play more physical than last year and tackle well.”

Langster and Jones will play the ends on defense with Emerson at nose guard. Owens and Joenah Cordell will provide depth.

Kenan Sneed, the leading tackler for the Panthers last season, leads the linebacking corps. Thissen is the likely starter at the other inside linebacker with Thomas also expected to play. Chris Roberts, Hayden Johnson, Hayden Davis and Tate rotating at the outside linebackers.

Except for Edwards, the secondary lacks varsity experience, but Wood is confident of the players to play well.

Zane Lozeau, a transfer from Dover, and Zack Parker are battling for the starting job at the cornerback opposite Edwards. Chandler Webber will also play at cornerback. Gage Buford and Colton Turley are the likely starters at the safeties.

“Edwards is one of the strongest players on the team,” Wood said. “We have the players and just need to put them in the right spots.”

After Tuesday’s scrimmage, the Panthers will have a three-week wait until the season opener at Newport on Sept. 3.

“The best thing about the time from the scrimmage to the season opener is the team can make the necessary adjustments,” Wood said. “We will not show everything against Beebe during the scrimmage.”

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Panthers wrap up spring practice, head into summer

By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY

What a difference one year makes for head coach Todd Wood and the Heber Springs Panther football team.

After surviving the trials of COVID-19 and a 2-9 record during the 2020 season, Wood and the Panthers completed their first spring practice and head into the 2021 season with high hopes.

“We worked out three times a week, and Tuesdays and Thursdays were learning days,” Wood said. “The players remembered what they learned last year, and we tried to build on that. We fine-tuned what we learned. One of our goals was to put players in the right position on offense and defense going into fall practice.”

Wood said the year of experience helped he and his staff to learn more about players’ skill level.

“I made the defensive calls during previous years and needed time to learn in calling the plays for the offense,” he said. “I’m not where I want to be, but farther ahead for next season. The best part is is we have a better idea where each player should be on offense and defense.”

One of the team’s questions going into next season will be developing a new starting quarterback. Matthew Cook, who has graduated, moved into that role beginning with the third game last season.

Sophomore Xander Lindley, junior Wyatt Winchester and senior John McBroome took most of the snaps during spring drills.

“McBroom (who started the first two games last season) is back,” Wood said. “He has been working on improving his footwork and increased his speed, so he can escape out of the pocket and throw on the run. We are working with him to read defenses and where to throw the ball.”

Winchester worked at quarterback last year, but he had limited game action.

“He (Winchester) has the strongest arm of the three players,” Wood said. “He needs to work on his footwork and being more of a mobile quarterback, plus read defenses better.”

Lindley, who was on last year’s junior high school team, has limited experience.

“He has a good arm, very mobile, reads defenses well and throws to the right receiver,” Wood said. “He will get a strong look because of his mobility. We hope to have a starter in place by our preseason scrimmage (at Beebe on Aug. 17).”

Jackson West is the leading candidate to start at running back.

“He was the backup last year,” Wood said. “We like him at receiver with his height and good hands. Parker Brown also has good hands, along with a lot of speed (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash). Parker also is a possibility at running back, along with Gideon Tate.”

The Panthers also have experience back at receiver with Gus Hannah, Easton Cusick and West. Brown, Austin Winchester and Dalton Yancey also are candidates.

“Gus will be one of our quicker receivers and a primary target,” Wood said. “Easton has worked hard during the offseason to build his body up and increase his speed. Gus and Easton will be our mainstays. Austin had a good spring and is a big target for the underneath passes. I feel good about our receivers.”

Chris Edwards, a projected starter at cornerback, could see action at receiver.

Three starters return on the offensive line — tackle Thad Bray, center Zach Thomas and guard Peyton Owens. Tripp Young is a projected starter at the other guard with the other tackle spot  undetermined.

“We were able to get into the weight room and steadily increased our maximum lifts during the spring,” Wood said. “The players gained weight, and we should be OK on the line.”

Wood said Lucas Langster, who is projected as a starter on the defensive line, and Corbin Jones could play on the offensive line.

Wood liked the defense’s progress and hopes few players will have to go both ways.

“I’m happy with the defense, particularly in the secondary,” he said. “We will have two new linebackers. We will do more fine-tuning going into fall practice.”

Wood said the goal is to have as few players as possible playing on offense and defense fulltime.

“We may go with players who you didn’t see on the field much last year,” he said. “Chris Benton is a big boy and give us more size at nose guard.

Blaze Emerson and Jones also will play with Langster at defensive end. We plan also to rotate guys like Bray, Owens and Young to help with depth.”

Kenan Sneed, last year’s leading tackler, returns at linebacker. Thomas is expected to play at inside linebacker. Hayden Johnson, Hayden Davis, Dakota Farmer, Tate and West are candidates at outside linebacker.

Edwards is the projected starter at one cornerback with the starter undetermined at the other cornerback spot. Gage Buford and Colton Turley are the expected starters at the safeties.

“I liked what I’ve seen in the secondary,” Wood said.

Heber Springs will compete at the Greenbrier 7-on-7 tournament on June 10. The Panthers will be participating in a 7-on-7 event at Carlisle and possibly one more tournament, plus two team camps.

Panther GameDay: Battle for the Little Red

Tripp Keeter gets a little help waving the “HS” flag from a strong breeze at Southside Batesville last week. Keeter, a spring graduate of Heber Springs High School, has been traveling to all of the games this season (home and away) to make sure the flag waves proudly for the team. PHILIP SEATON PHOTO

By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY

Heber Springs and Clinton will play for more than the Battle of the Little Red trophy at Jim Tumlison Field in Clinton on Friday night.

The winner will move up one notch on the Class 4A playoff seeding ladder and remain alive for the No. 4 seed and a bye from the first weekend of postseason play. Remaining teams will start the playoffs in play-in games on either Nov. 12 or Nov. 13.

Heber Springs seeks its first win in the fifth annual Battle of the Little Red. Kickoff is scheduled at 7 p.m.

The Panthers (1-4 2-4A Conference, 2-6 overall) are coming off a 22-17 win at Southside Batesville. Clinton (1-4 conference, 1-7 overall) defeated Bald Knob, also on the road, 21-15.

“The players are aware of the atmosphere surrounding the game,” Heber Springs coach Todd Wood said. “They know what must be done and returned to practice this week with more energy after playing a complete game for the first time this season.”

Wood said the Panthers learned from their second-half performance against Bald Knob two weeks ago and took a step forward.

Heber Springs quarterback Matthew Cook gets a hug from assistant coach Hunter Davis after the Panthers win last week at Southside Batesville. PHILIP SEATON PHOTO

“We realized what was not done in the past and played four good quarters against Southside,” he said. “We pulled close during the second half of previous games, but we never could get over the hump. We put ourselves in position to win the game against Southside during the fourth quarter.”

Clinton head coach Chris Dufrene said preparation is no different than previous games with the Panthers, except the game is now a conference game.

“We would want to win whether it was the first game of the season or the ninth week,” Dufrene said. “It means more this year because it is a conference game and will affect playoff seeding.”

But Dufrene said winning the trophy again is important.

“The trophy adds more pressure,” he said. “The game has been a good thing with all of the community involvement. It helps a lot of families in need who live in both communities.”

Clinton continues with its Wing-T offense, led by sophomore quarterback Harley Tobin. Junior Nick Epley, senior Brody Emberton, and juniors Jacob Hutto and Cody Davis are the primary threats in the running game.

The Yellowjackets have put the ball in the air more this season. Seniors Blaine Emberton and Jasper Burgess have been his primary targets.

“We like to spread the ball around more with the passing game,” Dufrene said. “Harley has played great at times and other times like a sophomore. He had a good game against Bald Knob with three touchdown passes.”

Clinton’s defense played well against Bald Knob and had three interceptions. Epley’s interception with two minutes left stopped a potential scoring drive by the Bulldogs.

Wood said Clinton will carry momentum from its win at Bald Knob into Friday’s game.

“The win gave them a big boost,” he said. “Clinton did what it needed to do and won. They ran the ball well and then spread the field with the passing game. The quarterback is versatile, makes good decisions and can run and pass. They also have two good running backs with breakaway speed.”

Heber Springs’ offense went through growing pains earlier this season, but it picked up the pace against Southside.

Senior Matthew Cook, who made the transition from receiver to quarterback, has completed 92-of-162 passes for 1,112 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior Nathan McKee leads the Panthers in receiving with 34 catches for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Two sophomores have emerged as targets in the passing game. Isaac King has caught 17 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Easton Cusick has 16 receptions for 210 yards.

Senior Diego Rubio is the leading rusher with 355 yards on 72 attempts and scored six touchdowns.

Wood said play improved drastically on the offensive and defensive lines and one of the determining factors in last week’s win

“We have to take care of the line of scrimmage again and win that battle,” Wood said. “Jayden Bremmon, Thad Bray, Lucas Langster, Trevor Weathers and Chris Smith played well. It helped by moving Preston Roberson back to linebacker, where he is better suited to play. I was pleased with the play of our (offensive and defensive) linemen.”

2-4A STANDINGS

                            W L CP  W L PS  PA 
Stuttgart                   5 0 65  7 0 270  33 
Central Arkansas Christian  5 0 51  8 0 272 159
Lonoke                      4 1 44  6 2 296 199
Bald Knob                   2 3 19  4 4 194 172  
Southside Batesville        1 4 13  2 6 151 241   
Little Rock Mills           1 4 11  2 6 164 231  
Clinton                     1 4  6  1 7 165 330 
Heber Springs               1 4  5  2 6 150 272
 
Friday, October 23
Heber Springs 22, Southside Batesville 17
Central Arkansas Christian 49, Lonoke 34
Clinton 21, Bald Knob 15
Stuttgart 28, Little Rock Mills 0

Friday, October 30
Heber Springs at Clinton
Central Arkansas Christian at Bald Knob
Southside Batesville at Little Rock Mills
Lonoke at Stuttgart
  • Kickoff: 7 p.m. in Clinton
  • Admission: $5
  • Radio/Streaming: Billy Morgan with handle the play-by-play with Lance Hamilton providing color on KSUG 101.9 The Lake. Panther Pregame begins at 6:30 p.m. followed by the game. Listen live link here.
  • Honorary Captains: For Heber Springs, long-time journalist and Heber Springs graduate Larry “Scoop” McCarty. For Clinton, former player James Washington.

THE SERIES

HEBER SPRINGS VS. CLINTON
“Battle of the Little Red”
Clinton leads the series 40-38-5.
Games played in Heber Springs: Clinton leads, 20-19-1
Games played in Clinton: Clinton leads 20-18-4
Games played on a Neutral Field: Heber Springs leads, 1-0.

FIRST MEETING: Heber Springs’ first season of football was 1913 and it would be 26 years before Clinton fielded its first team. It didn’t take long for the two teams to meet after that with Heber Springs winning the first game played between the two schools on October 13, 1939, in Heber Springs. The Panthers won by a score of 31-0 on that day. The two teams met again less than a month later on Veteran’s Day (November 11) 1939 in Clinton where the Panthers and Yellowjackets played to a 6-6 tie. The teams would go on to play continuously after that with a couple of exceptions. During World War II, neither school fielded a team during the 1943 season while Clinton did not field one during the 1944 season. After the war, Clinton and Heber Springs would meet twice per season in 1945 and 1946 with the Yellowjackets winning all four meetings. Financial constraints in the Heber Springs School District forced the school to not field a football team for the 1947 and 1948 seasons. The two teams meet again during the 1949 season with Clinton winning both games of the home-and-home series. The teams would go on continuously playing until 2007 when the opener scheduled with Clinton — which was played during the 2006 season at the Hooten’s Kickoff Classic at Estes Stadium on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway — was changed to allow the Panthers to play Mayflower instead of Clinton in the same Kickoff Classic in 2007. The series resumed in 2008 and continues today.
LONGEST WINNING STREAKS: Clinton has won six straight in the series twice. Once from 1945-1949 and the second time from 2000-2005. Heber Springs won seven straight in the series from 1978-1984.
CONFERENCE FOES: Heber Springs and Clinton were first paired in the same conference in 1974. They would be paired in the same conference from 1974-1990. They would again be paired in the same conference from 1993-2001 and from 2008-2013. The two teams are back in the same conference after Clinton moved up from 3A and replaced Riverview in the conference.
OVERTIME GAMES: There have only been three overtime games in the series and those all occurred during a four-year span from 1986-1989. Clinton won a double overtime home contest in 1986 (20-14) while the Panthers won in overtime the following season in 1987, 19-12, in Heber Springs. In 1989, Clinton defeated Heber Springs, 13-12, at Panther Stadium.
CLOSE GAMES: Twenty-four of the games have been decided by a touchdown or less during the series, not including the five ties.
COACH’S WIFE: Clinton head coach Chris Dufrene’s wife Heather (Bivins) is a 1987 graduate of Heber Springs High School.
TROPHY GAMES: Heber Springs won the trophy for the Hooten’s Kickoff Classic between the two schools in 2006, but since the inception of the “Battle of the Little Red” trophy, Clinton has won all four meetings, 28-20 in 2016 in Clinton, 28-17 in 2017 in Heber Springs, 36-34 in 2018 in Clinton, and 28-27 last season in Heber Springs . Heber Springs will be looking to break a four-game losing streak to Clinton.

SOCCER PREVIEW: Panthers return four starters

February 24, 2020

By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY

The Heber Springs Panther soccer team will need to grow up in a hurry.
Returning four starters, Heber Springs, which will return four starters, will debut in a preseason jamboree against Harding in Searcy at 7 p.m. Monday.

Jackson Harrod, who led the Panthers in scoring last season, will be one of the players to watch. Defenders Landon Johnson and Lawrence Baureis return, along with Landon Barbee.

“Jackson scored a lot of goals last season,” Heber Springs coach Jay Bishop said. “He played forward for most of his career and may have to become a midfielder. Lawrence and Landon (Johnson) have played well on defense for two years. We will lean those guys, especially early in the season, until we figure out who will play at the other the other seven positions. We will be young at a lot of positions.”

Bishop said one of the big decisions will be who assumes the starting role at goalkeeper.

“Jackson West is tall with long arms,” he said. “Nathan Poff was the backup last year.”

Bishop believes the younger players will step into their new roles, and he expects a successful season.

“We will be looking for players who can play out wide, like freshmen Luke Greenwald and Owen Phelps, and sophomore Gus Hannah” he said. “They need to take scoring pressure off Jackson. We have others players who do the job.”

Heber Springs has a challenging non-conference schedule. The Panthers will play Vilonia, Morrilton, Conway St. Joseph, Greenbrier, Conway Christian, Cave City and Mountain View.

“We will be learning together and use the non-conference to see what we need to work on,” Bishop said. “We want to be ready for conference play.”
Heber Springs will compete against Southside Batesville, Lonoke, Batesville, Jonesboro Westside, Brookland, Valley View and Wynne in the Class 4A North Conference.

“We will looking to put the players in the right position, so we will be successful,” Bishop said. “Valley View and Batesville will be the teams to beat. We should be in contention. We want to be playing our best once conference play starts.”

HEBER SPRINGS ROSTER
Nathan Poff, Jackson West, Landon Barbee, Julio Rubio, Landon Johnson, Diego Rubio, Gabe Tate, Jackson Harrod, Dalton McCollum, Gil Fernandez, Gus Hannah, Zach Thomas, Carlos Leal, Colt Allen, Mason Harris, Hayden Davis, Luke Greenwald, Harley Bresnahan, Owen Phelps, Kaden Young, Lawrence Baureis, Chandler Webber, Jacob Townsend, Lucas Langster, Kevin Leal, Preston Jones.