Using pure grit and determination, Heber Springs hung around against Pine Bluff Dollarway for the first half on Senior Night Thursday at Panther Stadium.
But, the visiting Cardinals' superior talent took over in the second half as Dollarway used its stout running attack to pull away for a 54-20 win in the first meeting between the two schools.
Both 2-4A conference teams advance to the Class 4A state playoffs. The fourth-seeded Panthers (5-4, 4-3) travel to Star City, which placed runner-up in 8-4A, while 2-4A runner-up Dollarway (9-1, 6-1) hosts Jonesboro Westside, which is making its first playoff appearance in more that two decades as the fifth seed out of the 3-4A conference.
Heber Coach Steve Janski said Dollarway simply had too many weapons. “I am really proud of the way our kids came out and battled,” said Heber Coach Steve Janski. “We were a little bit on edge and had some turnovers but to be honest we were just outgunned tonight and that's part of it. Sometimes you run into a team with a lot of weapons and they have that so it was a rough night for us.”
The Panthers, who have qualified for the playoffs seven consecutive seasons under Janski's direction, enter postseason play battle tested, having faced four of the top 10 teams in the state, including two current top five teams ¬ Stuttgart and Dollarway. “This is the hardest schedule since I've been here without a doubt,” said Janski. “You've got Pottsville [non-conference] then you've got Stuttgart, Dollarway and I think with Newport and the way Lonoke is playing right now it's just a rough, tough conference.
“Thank goodness this is not our last game. We will be going down to Star City with lot to play for and a lot to get ready for. Hopefully, when you look at how tough our schedule has been, it will help us give Star City a run for their money.”
Dollarway jumped out to an early 6-0 lead when quarterback Xavier Long hooked up with receiver Kabion Ento for a 45-yard touchdown, capping a 3-play, 59-yard scoring drive.
Heber responded with a 5-play, 67-yard drive to tie the game as running back Gunner Nelson moved the chains on third down by leaping over a defender and bursting over right side for 29 yards into Dollarway territory.
Two plays later, Nelson found room around a big block from tackle Derrik Fisher, which cleared the way for a 35-yard run inside the 1-yard line, where Nelson completed the drive on first down, scoring from one yard out to tie the score at 6-all. Dollarway stuffed Nelson on the two-point conversion, keeping the game tied with 8:17 left in the first quarter.
The Cardinals fired back with a 4-play, 77-yard scoring strike ignited by running back Jeremiah Young, who carried twice for a net of 21 yards.
Page 2 of 3 - On second and 10, running back Tracy Smith took a sweep around left end, where he picked up a block and hit the sideline for a 49-yard touchdown. Long kept for two more points on the conversion, giving Dollarway a 14-6 advantage with 6:50 left in the first quarter.
The Panthers responded again, this time covering 77 yards in five plays. Nelson, who finished with 156 yards on 17 carries, sparked Heber with a 20-yard run around left end.
After running back Chandler Marquardt moved the chains with a 4-yard run, slot back Clint Ligon took a shotgun snap out of the wildcat package, dodged a defender and raced down the left sideline, using remarkable balance to stay in bounds for a 29-yard touchdown. Dollarway held on the two-point conversion, preserving a 14-12 lead with 5:13 remaining in the first quarter.
But, the Cardinals scored for a third consecutive time, marching 56 yards in six plays. Backed up on third and 15, Long found receiver Darieus Robinson streaking down the left sideline for a 32-yard touchdown. Long kept over left tackle for two more points on the conversion, extending Dollarway's lead to 22-12 with 3:08 left in the first quarter.
Heber looked poised to answer once again as running back Chandler Jones slipped a tackle, turning a screen pass into 20 yards as the Panthers converted on third and 12.
The Panthers picked up another first down on a 6-yard completion from quarterback Michael Kramer to Ligon but Dollarway's defense tightened, forcing a turnover on downs following a two-yard run and three incomplete passes.
The Cardinals then scored for the fourth time in a row, covering 65 yards in six plays.
Running back Joshua Liddell, who led Dollarway with 178 yards rushing, capped the drive with a 35-yard touchdown run in which he found room up the middle and patiently maneuvered around his blocks for six. Long found Young in the back, right corner of the end zone for two more points on the conversion, pushing the Cardinals' lead to 30-12 with 11:10 left in the second quarter.
Heber's ensuing drive ended on its first snap when Dollarway linebacker Deondre Payton recovered a fumble in Panther territory.
The Cardinals capitalized three plays later when Liddell scored from eight yards out. Long's two-point pass fell incomplete, leaving Dollarway with a 36-12 lead with 9:45 left in the second quarter.
Heber held Dollarway for the first time of the game behind defensive end Harley Hooten, who bowed up and tackled Young for a 3-yard loss then Hooten sacked Long on fourth and 10 as the Cardinals turned the ball over on downs at the Heber 22.
The Panthers' newfound hope helped generate a score, starting with a 23-yard run by Ligon. Backed up following a holding penalty, Nelson took a draw up the middle for 19 yards, setting up fourth and short.
Page 3 of 3 - On fourth down, Nelson met contact at the line of scrimmage but lunged across the first down marker with a tremendous second effort. After Nelson found room around right side for nine yards, Ligon carried around right end, where he used a stiff-arm to break free before racing down the sideline for a 36-yard touchdown.
Ligon, who finished with 102 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 11 attempts, added two more points on the conversion as the spectacular senior dodged a tackler in the backfield and ran around right end to pull the Panthers within 16 at 36-20 with 1:33 left until halftime.
Dollarway put the game away in the second half, outscoring Heber 12-0 in the third quarter on a 35-yard touchdown run by Liddell and an 11-yard touchdown run by Young.
Running back Dequan Christmas then added a fourth-quarter touchdown run, finding pay dirt from one yard out as the Cardinals added six with 2:23 left in the fourth quarter, setting the final at 54-20.