Sometimes life overshadows football.
That was the case Friday night when the Heber Springs Panthers visited reeling Star City, which entered the first-round playoff game without senior linebacker Zack Towers, who was listed in critical condition at Arkansas Children's Hospital with a head injury suffered during the previous week's game against Crossett.
Sometimes life overshadows football. That was the case Friday night when the Heber Springs Panthers visited reeling Star City, which entered the first-round playoff game without senior linebacker Zack Towers, who was listed in critical condition at Arkansas Children's Hospital with a head injury suffered during the previous week's game against Crossett. Heber joined the Bulldogs before the game for a prayer and after the game at midfield for a prayer led by Panther Coach Steve Janski. The Heber Springs Marching Band wore Towers' No. 16 on their backs, drawing an applause from the home crowd and public address announcer. Once the game started, the Panthers (6-4) dominated Star City (8-3) in all phases, displaying tremendous sportsmanship between the lines while cruising to a 33-7 victory, which sets up a second-round matchup at Pea Ridge (10-1) on Friday. “I've never coached or been in a situation like this,” said Janski. “I can't imagine what this town and team is going through. It's something that we didn't really know how to handle and they didn't really know how to handle but I am proud of how the kids came out tonight and handled themselves and executed. “I just talked to two veteran officials that do a lot of big-time high school football down in this area and they gave me the biggest compliment that I've had since I have been at Heber Springs. They said it was the best group of acting kids that they have ever seen play a football game and I can't tell you how that makes me feel to know that that senior class had that type of leadership in a situation like this.” Heber received the opening kickoff and immediately set the tone on second down when running back Gunner Nelson cutback behind a gaping hole opened up over left side for 25 yards into Star City territory. On second and 10, Nelson carried a shotgun draw over right guard for 19 yards, setting up first and 10 from the Bulldogs' 12. After quarterback Michael Kramer hit receiver Micah Dew on a quick bubble screen for six yards, Nelson took a pitch over right side, met resistance near the goal-line but powered across for a 6-yard touchdown, capping a 6-play, 60-yard drive. Dillion Moore added the PAT for a 7-0 lead with 9:37 left in the first quarter. Star City moved into Heber territory on a third-down roughing the passer penalty but stalled out at the 40-yard line following a high snap, which led to an 11-yard loss on second and 9. After Star City's punt rolled into the end zone for a touchback, the Panthers struck quickly as Kramer used a play-action fake to freeze the Bulldogs' defense and create room for dynamic receiver Clint Ligon, who got the inside track on a post route, extended to make the catch above his head then slipped a tackle and raced to pay dirt for an 80-yard touchdown. Moore's extra-point gave Heber a 14-0 lead with 4:13 remaining in the first quarter. “When [Coach Gowen] called that play I kind of [tightened] up a little bit but what a great call,” said Janski. “We sucked them in on play-action and Michael Kramer just put it right on Clint and he went to score. “Michael Kramer was just a warrior tonight. Clint Ligon, Gunner Nelson, our offensive line and defense did a great job tonight but Michael Kramer was on one leg out there and he finished the game so that was very impressive,” added Janski. Heber owned the battle of field position with suffocating defense and took advantage midway through the second quarter, covering 60 yards in seven plays. The 2-4A fourth-seeded Panthers' third scoring drive started with a halfback pass from Nelson to Ligon, who made a spectacular leaping grab parallel to the ground while maintaining possession despite a hard landing for a 30-yard gain. Nelson, who finished with 16 carries for 125 yards and two touchdowns, ran three straight times for a net of 13 yards, setting up a first down at the Star City 17. On second down, Kramer, who finished 6-of-7 for 131 yards and two touchdowns, hit Ligon over the middle for a 15-yard catch and run. Ligon completed the drive on the next play when he took a direct snap over right side for a 2-yard touchdown with 3:43 left until halftime. Moore kicked the PAT for a 21-0 lead. On its ensuing possession, Star City executed a fourth and 10 fake punt to perfection as running back Lavonte Gardner found room around right end for 39 yards. But, two plays later the Panthers ended the drive when linebacker Ethan Bly picked off a middle screen pass. Following the turnover, running back Chandler Jones, who finished with six carries for 29 yards while also making a 17-yard reception, ran twice for a total of 16 yards as Heber ran out the clock, taking a 21-0 lead to intermission. Heber flipped field position in its advantage with more stifling defense then took complete command of the game on its second drive of the second half, covering 53 yards in three plays. Ligon started the drive with a slick 6-yard run, plus a personal foul penalty pushed the ball deep into Bulldog territory. On second and 4, Nelson broke a tackle and burst up the middle, where he split two more defenders then leaped over another would-be tackler at the goal-line for a 21-yard touchdown. With 3:48 left in the third quarter, Moore's extra-point was partially blocked and fluttered wide left, leaving the Panthers with a 27-0 lead. The 8-4A second-seeded Bulldogs moved into Heber territory on their next possession when Gardner busted loose for 17 yards but defensive end Zach Rasmussen stripped the ball loose on the Bulldogs' next play and Nelson recovered at the Panther 38. Heber put the game out of reach by driving 62 yards in nine plays while converting twice on fourth and short. Running back Chandler Marquardt, who finished with four carries for 39 yards, ignited the drive with a tough 27-yard run in which he broke a tackle up the middle and worked his way to the sideline using a stiff-arm. Facing a fourth and 1, the Panthers extended their drive when Ligon, who ran seven times for 50 yards and a score while making four receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown, carried a sweep around left end for 10 yards inside the red zone. Four plays later, facing fourth and 1 again, Kramer hit Dew, who turned up the left sideline and dove into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown with 8:25 left in the third quarter. The extra-point failed, leaving Heber with a 33-0 lead. Dew intercepted a pass in Star City territory on the Bulldogs' next possession and Heber began to empty its bench while running out the clock. With 4:20 remaining, Star City quarterback Tye Brown used a pump-fake to help Gardner get behind the defense for a 50-yard touchdown reception. The Bulldogs added the extra-point, setting the final at 33-7. The winner of Friday's game between Heber and Pea Ridge meets the winner of Pine Bluff Dollarway (10-1) at Highland (11-0) in the state quarterfinals. The Blackhawks of Pea Ridge, which defeated Monticello 42-0 in the first round, placed second in the 1-4A conference behind Prairie Grove. Heber holds a perfect road record of 5-0 this season.