It’s unusual that two familiar foes meet in the third round of the state playoffs but that is the case  as Heber Springs prepares to host the Newport Greyhounds Friday for a quarterfinal game.

It’s unusual that two familiar foes meet in the third round of the state playoffs but that is the case  as Heber Springs prepares to host the Newport Greyhounds Friday for a quarterfinal game.
Heber (2-4A) and Newport (3-4A) both entered the playoffs as third seeds out of their respective conferences but now find their teams amongst the final eight standing.
This is new territory for Heber, who has never advanced this far while Newport is making its 22nd straight playoff appearance that includes one state title. Overall, Newport has three state titles in school history.
Panther Coach Steve Janski said Newport presents different problems than Prairie Grove and West Fork, who Heber beat in the first and second rounds. “We are back to speed again. West Fork was very big and physical up front but we figured we would match up well speed wise. As we know from playing Newport the last few years they are faster than we are at almost every position. They’ve got us outmatched as far as speed but size wise we are about even. Our kids believe they can win against anybody now.”
This will be the two school’s seventh meeting in seven years. From 2002-05 Newport beat the Panthers four consecutive times as members of the old 2-3A Conference and the two split games from 2006-07 as members of the 2-4A Conference.
So Newport has tradition on its side but the Panthers have been gaining ground on the Jackson County powerhouse under Janski, in his fourth season as head coach. Most of the seniors remember Heber’s 24-14 win at Newport in 2006 that catapulted the Panthers into the playoffs. Last season, Newport beat Heber 22-8 en route to the conference championship.
Newport lost All-State senior running back Nico Cox from last year’s squad but they seem to always have replacements as sophomore Artez Brown (6-0, 175) and senior fullback Hakeem Doss (6-1, 205) lead the Greyhounds power running attack. Senior Koren Pruett (6-0, 175) is also capable of breaking a big run. He scored from 15 yards out in Newport’s 17-0 win at Gravette last Friday. Junior quarterback Ryan McGaughey (6-1, 160) has a strong arm and more speed than his predecessor, Edward Pruett.
“They run the Pro-T with split backs and they do all the same things they’ve always done because they have no reason to change. Coach [Greg] Brannon has those kids rolling,” said Janski.
But Newport hangs its hat on the defensive side, which is led by junior Thamail Morgan (5-10, 200), who racked up 16 tackles in Heber’s loss last season. Morgan, who has already totaled over 145 tackles this season, is also a threat on offense and special teams. Morgan helped the Greyhounds rally past Bald Knob in the first round of the playoffs with a 74-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Morgan also lines up at receiver in critical situations and returns kicks from time to time. He has scored in every way possible except on a punt return and Brannon said “he would have but he doesn’t return punts.”
Newport stifled Gravette’s running game last week, holding the Lions to minus-9 yards on 12 attempts. Gravette didn’t have much success through the air either; completing 8-of-30 passes for 79 yards.
Newport’s defense prefers to man up on the corners and put nine or even 10 in the box so that should open up Heber’s passing game if blitz protection is good. “Defensively, they play a cover zero. They don’t even have a free safety in the middle of the field; at least they haven’t yet. They put everybody out there in man and blitz more people than you can pick up,” said Janski. That’s good and bad because you can have plays for big losses but you can also make big plays if you get to that second level. We’ve got to find a way to get our running and passing game going.”
Although Panther running back Braylon Mitchell leads the Panthers’ offense with nearly 1,700 yards rushing, the game could ride on quarterback Wes McMullen’s arm. “The passing game will be open. It was open for Bald Knob, it was open for Gravette but the key is getting the ball out because they are going to bring more than we can block because they don’t play a free safety. I think the routes will be open it’s just a matter of us getting the ball out before they get to us,”
This is no doubt the biggest game in Panther history and Janski encourages all fans to come out and support the team. “Please come out. Make you a turkey sandwich and come out because it’s such a big deal to our kids to look behind them and see our fans there. They play harder. If there is ever a game to come to it would be this one. This is history, something that has never been done before in Heber Springs so this is the game to go to.”
At press time there was no confirmation of a team walk-through but there will likely be one starting at 5:30 p.m. Fans are encouraged to come out at least 15 minutes prior to the walk-through and enjoy the festivities.
Opening kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Spirit FM 100.7 will broadcast the game, beginning 15 minutes prior to kickoff.
The winner faces the Pine Bluff Dollarway-Nashville winner on the road next Friday.