Heber Springs had the undefeated Highland Rebels in sight on Friday in the Class 4A state quarterfinals, trailing 13-6 at halftime and set to receive the opening kickoff in the second half.
But, the Rebels forced a three and out on the Panthers' first possession of the third quarter then came up with a turnover on Heber's second possession. Highland quickly scored after both defensive stops and never let up, rolling to a 40-14 victory and a spot in the state semifinals against Ozark.
Heber Coach Steve Janski, who has guided the program to seven consecutive playoff appearances and three trips to the state quarterfinals, said turnovers doomed his team in the second half. “Turnovers were a big difference,” said Janski. “I think we had four tonight. We talked about it all week long. When you get this far you want to focus on fundamentals and we didn't have very good ball security and couldn't get off the field on third or fourth and long. A big part of that is Highland. They are a very good football team.”
The Rebels received the game's opening kickoff and marched 70 yards in six plays for a score. Highland reached Heber territory on a 12-yard run by quarterback Sterling Stowers, who then found receiver Ethan Hoppe over the middle for a 27-yard catch and run.
On first and 10, running back Jordan Brewer shook a defender over right side, broke another tackle inside the 5-yard line and dove into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown run with 10:57 left in the first quarter. Hoppe added the PAT, giving Highland a 7-0 lead.
Heber, which finished with a road record of 6-1 this season, bounced back with a 7-play, 63-yard scoring drive ignited by running back Gunner Nelson, who powered over right guard for eight yards, then carried a direct snap up the middle for five yards and a first down.
On second and 11, Nelson bowled over a defender near the line of scrimmage and kept his legs churning while dragging tacklers for a 28-yard gain deep into Rebel territory. After running back Chandler Marquardt barreled over right side for 11 yards, Highland held Nelson to one yard on first down.
The Panthers scored on the next play as slot back Clint Ligon took a sweep around left end, where he used a stiff-arm to break a tackle then tight-roped the sideline for a 10-yard touchdown. Dillion Moore's extra-point attempt sailed wide right, leaving Highland with a 7-6 lead with 4:43 left in the first quarter.
Highland answered, this time covering 66 yards in nine plays. Backed up on third and 14, the Rebels extended their drive when Stowers kept around left end, where he dodged a tackle for 18 yards and a huge first down.
Moments later, facing a second and 13, Stowers found receiver Michael Copeland streaking wide open down the Heber sideline for a 42-yard catch and run, which set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Brewer. Heber defensive lineman Derrik Fisher blocked Hoppe's extra-point attempt, leaving Highland's lead at 13-6 with 1:07 remaining in the first quarter.
Page 2 of 3 - The Panthers (7-5) nearly responded, mounting a 13-play drive that stalled out at the Highland 7-yard line when quarterback Michael Kramer's screen pass fell incomplete on fourth and 6.
Heber moved deep into Rebel territory behind two receptions for a combined 24 yards by receiver Micah Dew and two six carries for 29 yards from Nelson.
The Panthers kept the Rebels pinned deep by forcing a three and out, taking over at the Highland 40 after a short punt return by Ligon.
Heber threatened again as Kramer hit slot back Ethan Bly for eight yards then a pass-interference penalty set up the Panthers with a first and 10 from the Highland 15-yard line.
After a false start penalty, Highland linebacker Carlton Hill tracked down Nelson in the backfield for a 4-yard loss and the Panthers never recovered. On fourth and 18 from the Highland 24, Kramer lofted a pass to the end zone, where Stowers came down with an interception for a touchback.
Highland moved into Heber territory on its next possession and nearly scored but a holding penalty negated a 34-yard touchdown run by Stowers and the Rebels never recovered, settling for a 13-6 lead at halftime.
Any momentum the Panthers carried into the locker room quickly dissipated in the second half as Highland forced a three and out then scored on its first snap when running back Avery Johnson picked up a key block on the edge and raced down the right sideline for a 47-yard touchdown. Hoppe added the PAT, boosting the Rebels' lead to 20-6 with 10:25 left in the third quarter.
Two snaps later Nelson's tough, tackle-breaking run ended in a fumble, which Highland's Cody Odell recovered at the Panther 29.
Highland scored on its first play after the turnover as Stowers kept around right end, eluded a defender and sped down the sideline for a 29-yard touchdown. Hoppe added the PAT, extending the Rebels' lead to 26-6 with 9:37 left in the third quarter.
Heber marched deep into Highland territory on its next drive but the Rebels' defense stiffened, stopping Marquardt inches short on a fourth and 1 run up the middle.
Highland put the game away early in the fourth quarter. Facing a fourth and 17, Stowers found Johnson, who made a leaping catch in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown with 11:28 left to play. Hoppe's extra-point split the uprights, pushing the Rebels' lead to 33-6.
Highland added another score when Stowers kept around right end, broke a tackle and dashed down the sideline for a 67-yard touchdown with 6:07 left in the fourth quarter. Hoppe added the extra-point, giving the Rebels a 40-6 lead.
The Panthers battled to the end, posting a late score after cornerback Eddie Irvin scooped up a fumble and returned it 44 yards to the Rebel 36, where Heber used four plays to reach the end zone.
Page 3 of 3 - Marquardt got the drive started with a 16-yard run over right side.
Facing a third and 8, running back Chandler Jones capped the drive with a 16-yard touchdown run in which he dodged a defender near the line of scrimmage and burst through the secondary for six points. With 1:47 remaining, Bly found room over right tackle for two more points on the conversion, setting the final at 40-14.
Highland (13-0) hosts Ozark (11-2) in the state semifinals on Friday night with the winner to face the winner of Stuttgart (11-1) and Prairie Grove (12-0) in the state championship game at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 8 at 6:30 p.m.
“I think they are a serious contender,” said Janski of Highland. “They would match up well with anybody in the state. Their kids play hard, they play with a lot of enthusiasm and they have some weapons. The quarterback is a special player.”