After the Mena Bearcats defeated the Malvern Leopards, 26-7 in the 4A State Semifinals on Friday night, second year head coach Tim Harper asked the players, parents, and fans, “Does anyone have plans next Saturday? Because we’re going to the Ship!” Coach Harper wasn’t referring to Carnival or Royal Caribbean, not even Disney Cruise Lines, but instead to the fact that the Bearcats will be playing in the 4A State Championship on Saturday, December 13th.
With the victory over Malvern, Mena will be playing in the State Championship for the first time since 1976. The Bearcats have reached the semifinals twice in school history and have twice advanced to the championship game. The 1976 Bearcats defeated the Badgers of Arkadelphia, 13-7, to capture the first and only current football State Championship. The 2014 Bearcats have the same opportunity and will add the second State Championship to Mena’s resume with a win over the 4A-8 Warren Lumberjacks.
“I’m so proud of our guys and their efforts,” exclaimed Harper after the win over the Leopards. “This 2014 team is a perfect example of the 3”T” mission.” The three “T”’s stand for Trust, Team work, and Tenacity, all of which this team contains on several different levels.
Malvern won the toss and deferred giving Mena the first possession of the game. The Bearcats moved the ball 37 yards and picked up one first down on their first drive, which included a 27-yard completion from senior Sage Kesterson to senior Brady Davis. The drive stalled and on fourth-and-four from the Leopards 44-yard line, the punt snap sailed over the head of Kesterson, giving Malvern a first down on Bearcats 36-yard line.
“Our defense was tested early after that snap,” explained defensive coordinator Craig Bentley. “They (Malvern) started with great field position and once again our defense responded, shutting them down and forcing them to punt on our side of the field.”
The Mena defense has been solid all year and deserve a ton of credit. Junior D’Wayn Grinder led the Bearcats against the Leopards with nine total tackles on the night, including one for a loss. Seniors Luke Bowser and Greg Craig each tallied seven tackles, Craig knocked down four passes and forced one fumble, while Bowser added one tackle for a loss. Senior Colton Hendricks and junior David Hatfield each had six tackles, Hendricks also had a sack. Seniors Zane Sherrer and Jackson Daugherty and juniors Jared Flemens and Robert Doty all had five tackles a piece. Sherrer also knocked down four pass attempts and had one interception, while Daugherty had one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Flemens had one quarterback hurry and Doty pounced on a loose ball for a fumble recovery. Sophomore Hunter Hogan had four tackles and a pair of sacks, freshman Josh Graves had a pair of tackles, while senior Shane Atchley only mustered one tackle on the night.
On the flip side of the ball, the offensive line hardly ever gets credit for their hard work and the big gains as a result of them controlling the line. The Bearcat o-line is anchored by seniors Garrett Smith, Ethan Peters, and Kevin Harris, juniors David Goodner and Zane Pollard and sophomore Jackson Sullivan.
With 2:36 to play in the opening quarter, Kesterson connected with Davis across the middle, after a double pump fake screen pass for an 80-yard touchdown. Junior Justin Godfrey split the uprights with the point after the touchdown (PAT) to put the Bearcats up 7-0.
The first quarter ended with Kesterson throwing four incomplete passes but picking up a first down on a 15-yard scamper. Kesterson then sprinted 14-yards to pay-dirt on the first play of the second quarter. Godfrey’s PAT sailed wide left and Mena increased their lead to 13-0 with 11:49 left in the second quarter.
Malvern’s next possession ended with a Daugherty interception, that he actually weaved his way to the end-zone, but was called back for an illegal block in the back. The Bearcats moved the ball 53 yards on six plays, but turned the ball over facing a fourth-and-11 on the Leopards 28-yard line when Kesterson was sacked for an 11-yard loss. Sophomore Ryan Ozanich had a 22-yard run, while Kesterson connected with Davis on a 32-yard pass completion on the drive.
The Leopards 61-yard scoring drive was kept alive by three different Bearcat penalties, all resulting in first downs, once on third down and twice on fourth down. Mena took a 13-7 lead to the locker room at half-time.
After a dead-ball penalty ended the half, Mena was forced to kickoff the second half from their own 25-yard line. It appeared Malvern would have good field position before the kick, but Godfrey’s kickoff took a great Bearcat bounce and was downed at the Leopards 23-yard line without a return. Mena forced a three-and-out and Daugherty grabbed the punt and returned it 45-yards to the house. Godfrey’s PAT tagged the left upright and the Bearcats increased their lead to 19-7 with 11:08 to play in the third quarter.
Malvern drove 42 yards, picked up two first downs, but ultimately turned the ball over on downs when the Mena defense bowed up and shut down the Leopards on third and then fourth-and-two on the Bearcats 35-yard line.
Each team traded three-and-outs and Malvern ended up with the edge when Mena turned the ball over on a fumble on their own 36-yard line. Sherrer and the Bearcats had the last laugh though, when Sherrer went up and made one of the prettiest interceptions of the season, to give Mena the ball back on their own seven-yard line.
The Bearcats added their final touchdown of the game with 7:52 remaining when Daugherty galloped 37-yards to the end-zone. Godfrey got back on track and drilled the final PAT of the game to put Mena up 26-7.
The Leopards put together one final drive but after a knocked down pass by Craig on third-and-13 from the Mena 14-yard line, Hendricks chased down the Malvern QB to give the Bearcats the ball back on their own 15-yard line.
Mena won the semifinal match-up over Malvern 26-7, thus punching their ticket to the 4A State Championship to be held at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Saturday, December 13, with kickoff slated for 12:00 noon.
“Our crowds have been awesome,” said Harper. “Our crowd noise has disrupted our opponents and we can’t have it stop now. We really need everyone to make the trip to Little Rock and watch the Bearcats lay it all on the line in an attempt to win the school’s second State Championship.”
However, according to War Memorial Stadium’s policy, they reserve the right to search any or all fans that enter the facility. Items that aren’t permitted at events include duffle bags, backpacks, food, beverages of any kind, containers, alcohol, artificial noise makers, and umbrellas. Anyone trying to enter stadium with said items will not be allowed entrance into event. Anyone found to have said items with them in stadium will be subject to removal from event.
To watch the game:Mena vs. Malvern