Heber Springs' 2-4A conference win streak now spans three seasons as the Panthers opened league play with a 21-6 victory over the Lonoke Jackrabbits on Friday night.
The Panthers (2-1, 1-0) have won 12 straight conference games dating back to Oct. 13 of 2010 when Marianna-Lee defeated the Panthers on the road. Heber closed the 2010 season with four straight conference victories then ran the table last year while winning the league crown. The Panthers also captured their first road win at Lonoke since 2006 with Friday's monumental win.
Prior to the game, Heber Coach Steve Janski said this year's team must form its own identity. Janski found plenty of positives in the Panthers' conference opener, starting with a defense that limited Lonoke to only nine first downs while forcing four interceptions.
"Our defense the past two games have played exceptionally well. This was a huge, huge game," Janski emphasized. "The defense gave us a chance to make plays and score points and that starts with Coach [David] Farr and those coaches and the kids going out and executing it."
The Panthers built a lot of confidence heading into the thick of conference play.
"I think it was good for confidence because we really kinda got drummed by Pottsville and didn't get to finish our game against Harding [Academy] and then we had a so-so test with Gentry.
"To come into Lonoke and get a 'W' in this fashion … in a war is a big, big plus and now we get to go home and get ready for Stuttgart. I am just proud of this team. They do everything we ask them to do everyday and I love them to death. Their effort, their parents, the school, the community should be so proud of these football players because they give their heart out on every play," added Janski.
Heber had several missed opportunities in the first half as the Panthers' defense controlled the game, leading to good field position on several possessions. However, the offense wasn't able to capitalize.
"I think we can throw the ball better than we did tonight," said Janski. "We had some dropped balls, a touchdown dropped that hurt but that is something we can continue to get better at and make us more dangerous down the road."
Junior quarterback Michael Kramer finished 6-of-18 for 148 yards, while rushing nine times for 49 yards and a touchdown. "Kramer takes a step forward every game," said Janski. "He continues to make great decisions, he trusts his offensive line and he goes through his progressions." Receiver Clint Ligon was Kramer's favorite target. The senior hauled in five receptions for 126 yards.
The Panthers churned out 267 yards on the ground, spearheaded by sophomore running back Chandler Marquardt, who carried 12 times for 123 yards and one score. Senior running back Gunner Nelson added 12 attempts for 29 yards and a touchdown, Ligon ran four times for 28 yards and sophomore running back Chandler Jones sealed the victory with three carries for 38 yards as Heber ran out the clock.
Page 2 of 4 - Heber held Lonoke (2-2, 0-1) to one first down on the game's opening possession but the Panthers' first drive stalled out near midfield after a dropped pass down the sideline that likely would have gone for a touchdown.
The Panthers regained possession when Ligon jumped in front of a pass over the middle for an interception. But, after moving to the 'Rabbit 25 on a 15-yard keeper by Kramer, Heber's drive came to a sudden halt on a first-down fumbled exchange, which Lonoke's Bubba Lewis recovered.
The Panthers forced a three and out on Lonoke's third possession as cornerback Cooper Lawrence saved a potential score with a pass breakup deep down field where he was locked into single coverage with receiver Blake Mack, who had a distinct height advantage.
Heber opened the second quarter with a promising drive that included a 56-yard catch and run by Ligon, who broke a tackle near midfield and headed for the end zone before Mack tripped him up at the Lonoke 16-yard line.
An illegal shift penalty pushed the Panthers back and they never recovered. On fourth and 14 from the 20, Kramer found senior receiver Micah Dew over the middle for 10 yards ¬ four short of a first down as Lonoke took over on downs.
Two plays later Heber snatched the ball back when Nelson picked off a pass deep down the left sideline. The Panthers moved inside the red zone on a 6-yard run from Kramer. On first and 10 from the Lonoke 17, Kramer's pass over the middle was tipped then intercepted by Chandler Elmore as the 'Rabbits held inside the red zone for the second time in a span of three minutes.
Still tied at 0-0 with 5:43 remaining in the first half, Heber forced a three and out, capped by senior linebacker Josh Hudson, who played like a wild beast throughout the game. Hudson snuffed out a third-down screen pass from quarterback Grant Dewey to running back Eric Williams, dropping him for a 3-yard loss and forcing a punt.
After taking over at the Lonoke 44, the Panthers moved deep into 'Rabbit territory for the third straight time as Kramer kept twice for a net of 10 yards and connected with Ligon on a quick slant for 17 more, setting up a first down at the Lonoke 23.
Marquardt shed a defender over right side for 12 yards and another first down but a 4-yard run from Nelson and two incomplete passes left Heber with a fourth and 6 from the Lonoke 7 with only 40.5 seconds left in the first half.
Kramer couldn't find an open receiver on fourth down and scrambled toward the right corner of the end zone but was upended four yards short of the goal-line, leaving the game scoreless at halftime.
Page 3 of 4 - "We just went over details," Janski said of his team's approach in the locker room at halftime. "We didn't do the little things in the first half and it hurt us but we got that taken care of and produced points in the second half."
The Panthers opened the second half with a nine-play, 68-yard scoring drive. Facing a third and 5, Kramer kept Heber's drive alive with a 6-yard scramble. Three plays later, on third and 11, Kramer found Ligon streaking behind Lonoke's secondary for a 51-yard gain and a first down at the 'Rabbit 7.
Nelson powered up the gut two times for a total of six yards before Kramer capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run over left tackle, where he cutback into a gaping hole. Dillion Moore added the PAT for a 7-0 lead with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter.
Lonoke's Dre Offord returned the ensuing kickoff 27 yards to the Heber 44, where the Panthers stepped up again as Eddie Irvin intercepted a pass over the middle and returned it deep into Lonoke territory. However, a clipping penalty on the Irvin's return left Heber with a first down at the Lonoke 36.
A holding penalty set the Panthers back and they never got out of the hole, eventually settling for a punt, which Kramer dropped perfectly at the 'Rabbit 2.
Lonoke managed a first down before junior linebacker Ian lowe and the Panther defense bowed up again. On second and 6, Lowe tackled utility back D.J. Burton for a 6-yard loss and junior defensive end Zach Rasmussen added a sack, causing another 6-yard loss while forcing a punt.
Following a shanked punt, Heber covered 25 yards in five plays for a touchdown. On second and 10, Ligon found room over left side for 15 yards as the third quarter came to a close with Heber on the move and leading 6-0.
After being stuffed on first and goal, Nelson carried over left side for seven yards on second down, setting up a third and goal from the Lonoke 3. On third down, Nelson took a sweep around left end, where he dodged a defender and lowered his shoulder for a 3-yard touchdown with 10:28 remaining in the fourth quarter. Moore booted the PAT for a 14-0 lead.
Lonoke responded with a score to stay within striking distance. Backed up on a fourth and 16, backup quarterback Nick Watson hit Mack, who reversed field and hit the right sideline for a 51-yard touchdown with 7:45 left in the game. Heber's heavy rush caused Jose Garcia to push the extra-point wide left, leaving the Panthers with a 14-6 advantage.
Marquardt took over on Heber's next drive. The sophomore running back carried twice for a net of 13 yards, then Marquardt sped through a crowded line, bounced left and raced down the Lonoke sideline for 65 yards.
Page 4 of 4 - On first and goal, Marquardt completed the 4-play, 80-yard scoring strike with a 2-yard touchdown run in which he met resistance near the line of scrimmage but powered across the goal-line for six points. Moore added the PAT as the Panthers took a 21-6 lead with 5:42 left to play.
Lonoke moved inside Heber territory to the 32 before the Panthers sealed their victory when defensive end Harley Hooten stepped into the right flat, where he intercepted a screen pass.
With 3:30 left to play, Heber crammed the ball down the 'Rabbits throats as Marquardt ripped off runs of 11 and five yards before Jones put the game away with a 31-yard run around right end.
Jones carried two more times for a total of seven yards as the Panthers moved down to the Lonoke 3 before Kramer took a knee as Heber celebrated a 21-6 victory.
Defensively, Hudson paced the Panthers with 12 tackles, including nine unassisted and one sack. Hooten and senior linebacker Wade Gilbrech each collected seven tackles and senior defensive lineman Blaine Hill contributed six tackles, including a sack.
The Panthers host Stuttgart (4-0, 1-0) on Friday at 7 p.m.