In its final home outing of the season on Thursday night, the Heber Springs Junior Panthers won their fifth consecutive game in impressive fashion, disposing of lake area rival Clinton 30-12 in front of a large crowd at Panther Stadium.
With the victory, the Junior Panthers are now in position to wrap up second place in the 2-4A conference standings with one game remaining at Pine Bluff Dollarway.
Heber's only 2-4A loss came to first-place Lonoke, which leads the league with a perfect record of 6-0.
Junior Panthers' Coach Mark Brigance said it's always a hard-fought game when these two schools meet. “We knew it was going to be a battle. It meant a lot to our kids and we knew it meant a lot to their kids. There were a few times I thought we got a little sloppy out there and did some things we shouldn't have but the competitive nature came out.
“The offensive and defensive line got the job done when we needed it. The quarterback play was great and we've got a three-headed monster back there at tailback. They made some big-time plays for us tonight.”
Facing the Junior Yellow Jackets' Double Wing attack, Heber's James Ketchum and Cole Coleman caused havoc in the backfield as they have throughout the season. “They've stood out all year for us,” emphasized Brigance.
“James plays with a lot of heart. His motor is going at all times. Every play is a big play for him and you see him get up and celebrate with his teammates and I think that's because his motor is going even after the play is over.
“With them pulling their guards a lot and not being able to block back on Cole that helped a lot. We know with his speed and athleticism he was going to be in there backfield at some point. We were hoping it was early and it was. And then it was often after that,” added Brigance.
Heber took its first lead after Ketchum slammed Clinton quarterback/punter Kannon Bradley for an 18-yard loss on a botched punt attempt. Two plays later running back Dewaun Miller powered over left guard from three yards out, completing a 2-play, 11-yard scoring strike. Quarterback Hunter Chandler rolled left and hit receiver Ethan Dickeson in the back corner of the end zone for two more points on the conversion, pushing the Jr. Panthers' lead to 8-0 with 6:35 left in the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Heber added another score when Chandler dumped a middle screen pass to receiver Pierce Mitchum, who dodged a tackle and ran past three more defenders to the right pylon for a 39-yard touchdown. Chandler faked a handoff, shed a tackle and dove across the plane of the goal-line for two more points on the conversion as the Jr. Panthers built a 16-0 lead with 7:25 remaining in the first half.
Page 2 of 2 - Late in the first half Clinton responded with a touchdown, which was set up by Kort Weaver's 17-yard punt return combined with a personal foul penalty. Starting from the Jr. Panther 39, the Jr. Yellow Jackets moved within scoring range when Bradley connected with receiver David Beavers over right side for 17 yards.
On first and goal with time running out in the first half, running back Aaron Bigelow scampered around left end for an 8-yard touchdown with 7.8 seconds left until halftime. Bradley's two-point conversion pass fell incomplete as Heber preserved a 16-6 cushion entering the locker room.
Heber running back Eddie Torres, who made several remarkable runs reminiscent of former NFL star Barry Sanders, broke the game wide open in the third quarter when he bowled over a defender near the line of scrimmage and burst through the secondary and down the left hash for a 49-yard touchdown. Clinton stopped Heber running back Eddie Mejia inches short on the two-point conversion, leaving the Jr. Panthers' lead at 22-6.
But, Clinton managed to hang around with a 12-play, 88-yard scoring drive that extended into the fourth quarter. On first and 10, Bradley found receiver Mark Griffin streaking down the right sideline for a 22-yard touchdown. Bradley's two-point pass intended for Griffin fell incomplete, leaving Heber with a 22-12 lead with 7:10 left in the fourth quarter.
The Jr. Panthers countered on their ensuing possession, covering 65 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown. Backed up on third and 10, Chandler hit Torres, who dodged the first tackler, broke away from the second tackler and hit the sideline for 28 yards and a new set of downs.
Later in the drive, facing a fourth and 4, Chandler found Torres again ¬ this time for six yards and a first down. Mitchum added nine more yards on a middle screen, plus Clinton committed a facemask penalty as Heber moved deep into Clinton territory.
After Torres turned a screen pass into nine yards, Chandler hit Mitchum in stride for a 22-yard touchdown on third and 8. With 2:41 left in the fourth quarter, Chandler rolled right and hit Mitchum for two more points, setting the final at 30-12.
Heber (5-3, 5-1) wraps up its season at Pine Bluff Dollarway tonight at 7 p.m.