With Heber Springs leading by 10 at halftime, Lonoke's Junior Jackrabbits rallied with 24 unanswered points in the second half. By the time Heber responded with a score in the fourth quarter it was too late as Lonoke won the 2-4A conference opener 30-22 on Thursday night at Panther Stadium.
After suffering three consecutive losses decided by a touchdown or less, Junior Panther Coach Mark Brigance said the team has played with great effort in each outing, but needs to iron out a few details. “Our kids played hard and we are tickled with that. They did everything we asked. We are just looking to improve on the minor details of the ballgame. I feel like that is something that might help push us over the edge. Those were three really tight ballgames and we are tickled to death with that. But, we would like to see a little more success on that scoreboard.”
Heber held a 16-6 advantage at halftime but that came crashing down when Juwaun Bryant returned the opening kickoff of the second half 70 yards for a touchdown, using a quick cutback near midfield to create space. Lonoke quarterback Savonte Rountree kept for two more points on the conversion, suddenly pulling the Jr. 'Rabbits within two at 16-14 with 7:40 left in the third quarter.
“It was [deflating] a little bit but you turn around and go on offense so what is there to lose,” Brigance said. “We needed to march right back down there and score and we would be just fine.”
Lonoke took the game's first lead when Justin Meadows took a sweep over left side, where he found a cutback lane for a 48-yard touchdown with 5:15 remaining in the second quarter. Heber stuffed the two-point conversion, leaving the 'Jr. Rabbits' lead at 6-0.
Heber countered with a five-play, 53-yard scoring drive ignited when quarterback Hunter Chandler found receiver Pierce Mitchum streaking down left seam for 43 yards. Running back Dewaun Miller barreled over a defender at the line of scrimmage for 10 yards then Chandler kept for three more, which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Miller. Chandler faked a handoff and shed a tackle for two more points on the conversion, giving the Jr. Panthers an 8-6 lead.
Heber's defense forced a three and out on Lonoke's next possession, which ended with a high snap that gave the Jr. Panthers a first down at the 'Rabbit 15. On second and 12, Chandler rolled right and hit Mitchum for six yards, plus a facemask penalty gave Heber a first and goal.
Miller scored from six yards out on Heber's next snap, sidestepping a defender on the way to the end zone. Running back Eddie Torres found room up the middle for two more points off an inside trap play, boosting Heber's lead to 16-6 with 33.1 seconds left in the first half.
Page 2 of 2 - Lonoke (2-1, 1-0) drove into Heber territory before its drive ended when Miller intercepted a pass and returned it 53 yards down the sideline as time expired in the first half.
Following Bryant's 70-yard touchdown off a kickoff return and Rountree's two-point conversion, the Jr. 'Rabbits had suddenly trimmed their deficit to 16-14. Lonoke then forced a three and out and got back to work, covering 55 yards in seven plays for the go-ahead score.
On second and 2, running back Josh Coleman capped the Jr. 'Rabbits' drive with a 7-yard touchdown run on a delayed handoff. Speedy flanker Joe Carter then sped around left side, where he met contact but twisted across the goal-line for two more points, giving Lonoke a 22-16 lead with 3:12 remaining in the third quarter.
A holding penalty negated a first down pass from Chandler to Logan Jones and the Jr. Panthers never recovered, eventually punting on fourth and 7. Lonoke marched 76 yards in 11 plays for another score.
The 'Rabbits' back-breaking drive included a third and 14 conversion from Carter, who used his quickness for a 28-yard catch and run. Later facing a fourth and 14, Lonoke converted again, this time when Rountree hit Meadors, who turned the swing pass into 15 yards and a critical first down.
With 5:10 left in the fourth quarter, Carter picked his way up the middle for a 4-yard touchdown and Rountree used his size to push the pile for two more points on the conversion as the Jr. 'Rabbits extended their lead to 30-16.
The Jr. Panthers would respond with a score, using 13 plays to march 62 yards. Backed up on third and 8, Chandler kept the drive alive by using a stiff-arm to break loose on a 13-yard scramble.
Moments later on fourth and 22, Heber came through again as Chandler passed deep down the left side, where Eddie Mejia came down with a catch between two defenders for 30 yards and a new set of downs.
Mitchum turned a middle screen into 15 yards, setting up a 5-yard touchdown run by Miller, who powered behind center for the score. Lonoke stopped the two-point conversion attempt, preserving a 30-22 lead with 1:39 left to play.
Heber battled until the final whistle, forcing a fourth and 3 before Lonoke slammed the door when Carter squirted free for three yards, allowing the Jr. 'Rabbits to run out the remainder of the clock.
“There was never a give-up,” said Brigance. “We tried to strip the ball there at the last of the ballgame and we couldn't get it loose even though we had a couple of piles there. I am proud of the guys. They battled all the way through the ballgame.”
Heber (0-3, 0-1) resumes 2-4A conference play at Stuttgart on Thursday at 7 p.m.