WILSON -- It was a tale of two halves by the Heber Springs Panthers Friday night in the second round of the class 4A playoffs at Rivercrest.
In the first half, Heber Springs scored 21 unanswered points behind 115 yards on 20 attempts and three touchdowns by senior Blaze Nelson to take a 28-24 lead into halftime.
In the second half, it was the Rivercrest Colts that turned the tables on the Panthers scoring 22 unanswered and holding Nelson to 60 yards on 16 carries to claim a 50-36 victory over Heber Springs at Cortez Kennedy Field.
“First thing you have to do is take your hat off to Rivercrest,” Heber Springs coach Darren Gowen said of the defending class 3A state champions. “They are experienced football team, and they have been here before. They just turned the pressure up on us in the second half and we had a hard time with it.”
The game closed out the careers for 17 seniors who went 18-3 in conference play, won a share of back-to-back conference titles and reach the second round of the playoffs during their three seasons in the program.
“It didn't end the way anybody wants it end, ever,” Gowen said. “I told them before the game that I love them and couldn't be more proud of them, and It's not going to change how the end goes.
“I told them halftime the same thing that It doesn't matter how the end goes I want you to go out there and fight your tail off. Whatever happens, it couldn't make more proud of you or make me love you any more or any less. I thought just a few things didn't go our way and that's just part of football.”
Nelson closed his career by breaking Braylon Mitchell’s single season rushing record. Mitchell set the record in 2008 and Nelson broke that record on his second carry of the night. Nelson would go on to finish the game with 175 yards rushing and close out his career with 2,042 yards on 286 carries with 30 touchdowns, all new school single season marks.
“For him to have 2,000 yards in 12 games is just incredible,” Gowen said.
Kicker Julian Cameron also closed out his career with four PAT kicks which upped his state record to 100 consecutive without a miss.
Rivercrest (11-1) won the toss and took the football at midfield after the onside kick attempt by the Heber Springs (7-5).
The Colts marched down to the Panther 9 before the Panther defense stopped Rivercrest quarterback Demilon Brown on a fourth-down play just short of the endzone with 6:47 left in the first quarter.
Junior Adam Martin connected with Dalton Hall and Tri Johnson on back-to-back first-down passes to push the ball out of the Panther 24. From there Nelson would touch the ball three times and move it to the Colt 27 before Rivercrest stopped the senior for a loss on back-to-back touches.But on third-and-15 from the 32, Martin went to the air connecting with senior Rocky Finney for the score and to complete the nine-play, 99-yard drive with 3:36 left in the first quarter.
The Panther lead would be short-lived however as the Colts scored three touchdowns in the next 3:07 take a 21-7 lead. On the Colts, first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive after the Panther touchdown, Kentavious Robinson would race 58 yards to make to 7-all with 3:21 left in the opening stanza.
After forcing the Panthers to a three-and-out on their next possession, the Colts would score on a two-play, 39-yard drive as Robinson would ramble in from the 9 to make it 14-7 with 2:01 to play in the first quarter.
On Heber Springs’ next drive, Martin’s third-down pass attempt was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked-off by Riley Jones at the Panther 18. Jones then raced untouched into the endzone to make 21-7 with 29.6 seconds left in the opening quarter.
But the Panthers wouldn’t go down quietly. Heber Springs responded with a nine-play, 80-drive that Nelson capped off with a 13-yard run to make it 21-14 with 10:09 to go in the half. The Panthers were helped on the drive by two 15-yard personal foul penalties by the Colts.
A 34-yard return on the onside-kick attempt put Rivercrest at the Panther 16, but the Heber Springs’ defense stiffened forcing a 30-yard field goal by Jones to make it 24-14 at the 8:14 mark.
The Panthers followed with another long drive. This time an eight-play, 70-yard drive that Nelson capped off with a 15-yard run to make 24-21 Colts with 4:54 to play before the half. The big play on the drive was a 20-yard run by Martin.
Tanner Tillman recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt for Heber Springs, but the drive stalled forcing a Martin 46-yard punt that was downed on the Colt 10. Two plays later, sophomore Nicholas Hitchcock pounced on the Brown fumble at the 3. Nelson punched it in from there on the next play and Heber Springs led 28-24 with 1:59 to play before the break.
However, the second half would belong to the Colts.
After a three-and-out to opening the half by the Panthers, the Colts would pull to within a point a 28-27 when Jones connected on a 25-yard field goal with 6:36 left in the third. Rivercrest would again force a Martin punt and Brown would race into the endzone on a 36-yard run eight plays later to take a 35-28 advantage after Brown added the 2-point conversion at the 1:26 mark of the third.
The game would remain that way until midway through the fourth quarter when Colts took advantage of good field position after a Panther fumble to score on a four-play, 24-yard drive that Brown capped off with a three-yard run with 6:26 to play.
Rivercrest would seal the win with 2:31 to play when Brown scored on a 45-yard run. The Colts then faked the extra point kick and Jones threw Alec Hinklin for the 2-point conversion to make it 50-28.
Heber Springs would add a late touchdown as Martin scored on a 23-yard run with 40.2 seconds left. Nelson scored on the 2-point run to make it 50-36.
“We ran into a good team, and you are going to do that this time of year, but we gave them a run for their money and they knew they were in a football game,” Gowen said. “I am so proud of these kids and I love them to death
“I hurt for them, especially these seniors, but they are going to better people for going through this program. I am better for knowing them. I never have anything to say that can comfort them at this point except to say that we are there for them and will be for the rest of their lives.”
First Downs: Heber Springs 25, Rivercrest 15
Third-Downs: Heber Springs 4-12, Rivercrest 2-7
Fourth-Downs: Heber Springs 1-2, Rivercrest 0-2
Rushing Att.-Yards-Avg: Heber Springs 46-263-5.7, Rivercrest 46-354-7.7
Passing Comp.-Att-Yards-Int: Heber Springs 8-22 97 2, Rivercrest 3-4 32 0
Total Offense: Heber Springs 351, Rivercrest 386
Sacks-Yards: Heber Springs 0-0, Rivercrest 2-9
Penalties-Yards: Heber Springs 8-48, Rivercrest 8-80
Fumbles-Lost: Heber Springs 2-2, Rivercrest 4-3
Punts-Avg.: Heber Springs 4-41, Rivercrest 0-0
Rushing: Heber Springs, Blaze Nelson 36-175-3, Adam Martin 9-82-1, Rocky Finney 1-6. Rivercrest, Kentavious Robinson 19-135-2, Demilon Brown 14-120-3, Keshawn Scott 9-64, Omar Phillips 2-36, Easton Elder 1-5, Team 1-(-6).
Passing: Heber Springs, Adam Martin 8-22 97 1-2. Rivercrest, Demilon Brown, 3-3 32 0-0, Riley Jones 0-1 0 0-0.
Receiving: Heber Springs, Rocky Finney 4-64-1, Tri Johnson 1-12, Dalton Hall 1-10, Fate Berry 1-9, Blaze Nelson 1-2. Rivercrest, Keshawn Scott 3-32.