BY NORM BETZ
All good things must come to an end, and for the Mena Bearcats, it came with a historic finish. The Bearcats finished as the State Runner-Up after making their final appearance of the season in the Arkansas 4A State Championship in War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. The final score was 48-14, with the Warren Lumberjacks being named as State Champs.
Despite the loss in the 4A Championship, the Bearcats have nothing to hang their heads about after finishing the season with an overall record of 12 wins and 3 losses. Prior to the season, Mena was picked to finish sixth in the 7-4A Region (out of eight teams). Not only did they finish second in 7-4A, but they also finished second out of 48 teams in the state.
The 2014 Bearcats set many records on their way to the state finals. They did something that hadn’t been done at Mena in 17 years: they hosted a playoff game. After winning their first two playoff games, the Bearcats set a school record for hosting a third-round playoff game. The records didn’t stop there, as they hosted a State Semifinal game (fourth-round playoff game) for the first time in school history. Next, the Bearcats did something that hasn’t been done in 37 seasons: played for a State Championship. The Bearcats also tied a school record with 12 total wins. This has only happened twice in Mena’s history.
In the 4A State Championship game, the Bearcats trailed the Lumberjacks 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. Warren’s Kilay Cox scored his first of five touchdowns in the game on a 14-yard run. The Lumberjacks picked up seven first downs in the opening quarter, while the Bearcats only passed the sticks once. Senior Jackson Daugherty picked up the first down on a seven-yard run over the right side. Warren had 20 total plays in the first for a total of 184 yards, while Mena picked up a total of 27 yards on 11 plays. Senior Sage Kesterson went three-for-five for 12 yards, completing two passes to senior Justin Castor and one to Daugherty.
The Bearcats defense bowed up on the Jacks’ last drive of the first quarter, stopping Warren on the Mena three-yard line. It looked like the Bearcats offense had a hold of some of that momentum that the defense just supplied, but, after picking up one of their first first-downs of the game, Mena was forced to punt on fourth-and-three from their own 27-yard line. Kesterson connected with sophomore Ryan Ozanich for a 17-yard gain on the drive.
Warren’s Cox scored twice more in the second quarter to account for all the Lumberjacks scoring in the first half. Cox rushed in from two-yards out and one-yard out for the scores.
Senior Brady Davis picked up a first down on a 17-yard completion from Kesterson on Mena’s third drive. It too, ended with a punt.
The Bearcats most productive drive of the first half was their last one that went for 42 yards on seven plays and included a pair of first downs and ended on the Warren 38-yard line as time expired in the half. Daugherty picked up 29 yards for the one, while Davis rushed 11 yards for the other. Kesterson’s last three passes of the quarter fell incomplete.
Warren led 21-0 at the half and picked up 14 first downs to Mena’s five first downs. The Lumberjacks rushed 25 times for 154 yards, while the Bearcats rushed 13 times for 62 yards in the first half. Kesterson completed eight-of-16 for 59 yards, while Warren’s Justin Gorman completed 10-of-13 for 120 yards. Neither team turned the ball over in the first 24 minutes, Mena had two penalties for 25 yards, while Warren was flagged once for 11 yards.
Three out of the four Bearcats possessions in the third quarter ended in turnovers. Kesterson was intercepted twice and was sacked and fumbled once. The Lumberjacks turned two of the three into points and with 5:16 to play in the third quarter invoked the mercy clock rule, leading 35-0. Kesterson did complete a screen pass to Davis for a 12-yard gain and a first down in the quarter.
Warren picked up five first downs to Mena’s two in the third. The Lumberjacks ran the ball 10 times for 46 yards, while the Bearcats rushed four times for four yards. Warren completed six-of-seven passes for 69 yards, while Kesterson completed three-of-nine for five yards and two interceptions. Warren had 17 plays for 115 yards in the quarter, while Mena had 13 plays for a total of nine yards.
The Bearcats started off their first possession of the fourth quarter on the Lumberjacks 41-yard line after a three-yard punt by Warren. Mena drove 41-yards on four plays to put their first points of the game on the board with 9:06 to play in the contest. Davis sprinted 25 yards on the first play of the drive and then Kesterson connected on a pair of passes to Ozanich and senior Luke Bowser. Ozanich’s was for a seven-yard gain, while Bowser’s four yard grab was good for the Bearcats first touchdown. Junior Justin Godfrey split the uprights and Mena trailed Warren, 35-7.
Warren answered with a seven-play 52-yard TD drive to put the Lumberjacks up 42-7 with 5:51 to play in the game. Two plays later, the Bearcats answered with a TD of their own. Kesterson kick-started the two-play 61-yard drive with a 28-yard scamper over the left side of the line. Kesterson then completed a 33-yard pass to Castor who found pay-dirt. Godfrey added the PAT and Mena trailed Warren 42-14 with 5:10 remaining in the contest.
Warren added another TD on their next drive, a six-play 33-yard drive after a failed Mena onsides kick. The Lumberjacks increased their lead to 48-14 with 1:43 to play.
Kesterson completed a five-yard pass to Ozanich and then junior Heath Schnell picked up 16-yards on his first and only carry of the contest. The final play of the game featured a Kesterson 18-yard completion to Castor as time expired. Mena fell to Warren, 48-14.
Junior D’Wayn Grinder was selected to receive the Brandon Burlsworth Award for his outstanding defensive play during the State Championship. Grinder finished the game with 14 tackles, including six solo tackles. Grinder finished the season with a total of 128 tackles and two interceptions.