Familiar foes Rector, Izard County seek 8-man grid crown
BY DUDLEY E.DAWSON
The two combatants in the Thursday night’s Arkansas 8-man high school football championship game have send plenty of each other this year and have one final game to settle it all.
Rector (7-2) and North Conference champion Izard County (8-2), both represented by the mascot Cougars, have split a pair of games headed into a 7 p.m. title contest at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium that will be televised statewide by PBS stations.
“This is good and what you hope for all your life, but we are trying to keep it all in perspective and just got do what we do,” Rector head coach Dave Hendrix said.
The trip to state championship game is a source of pride for Hendrix, a Rector alum and former as well as current coach.
“It’s special, being from here and coaching here for several years, leaving and coming back, it’s very special, Hendrix said. “But what gets unnoticed is all the guys through the years, especially the last few years, that have gotten us too this level and and have put in the time and effort.
“We have always gotten close, but we never could knock the door down.”
Izard County head coach Jared Johnson’s program is riding a seven-game winning streak since a 1-2 start in the school’s inaugural season on the gridiron.
The two teams are playing for the sanctioned title, which feature Class 1A and 2A schools while larger schools compete for the club championship, which was won by Mountain View with a 52-32 win over Fountain Lake.
“It is a good football team, they are very well-coached, physical and I think they love football as much as we do so it should be a good match up,” Johnson said of Rector.
Rector whipped Izard County 34-28 in a non-conference game on Sept. 16 before Izard County rolled to 38-8 conference win two weeks later in the second battle between the two programs.
“The first two games we played were early and the difference in the games was they got healthy pretty much ,” Hendrix said. “The second game they were healthy and they put it on us pretty good. But I think that was also a game that woke us up and told us that we weren’t we needed to be and need to work a little harder to get to where we are now.”
Rector has won all five games since that loss, which Hendrix chalked up as a learning lesson.
“I think from that point on that we have gotten better and we have just kind of jelled as a team,” Hendrix said. “Like I said, sometimes you need something like that to wake you up.”
That last of those five wins was a 30-28 win over previously unbeaten Mountain Pine, who lost to Strong in the 2021 championship contest after eliminating Rector.
“We knew that probably no one in our state other than the people in our group thought we could win,” Hendrix said. “I just told them that as long as we believe it, we can do it. But I said you can’t worry about other people and what they think, we just have to worry about ourselves. “
Hendrix is impressed with Izard County’s football debut.
“They are very talented,” Hendrix said. “They have two or three guys, well, actually they have several guys, but two or three that are just match up nightmares that we really can’t key on one thing because they can do so many things.
“They are really well-coached. They are a sound football team. We know going in the they are a little more talented than we are. We are just going to do the best that we can, do what we do and hopefully get a break or two so we can stay in the game.”
Hendrix was asked about the best characteristics of his team this season.
“Guts,” Hendrix said. “They are just hard-nosed and they play awfully hard. Win, lose or draw, they are winners.”
Rector is led by all-purpose athlete Jacob Cox (5-11, 175) and quarterbacke Drew Henderson (5-8, 165) on offense and leading tackler Jacob Mooneyhan (5-10, 165) on defense.
Henderson’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Cox tied the game 28-28 and his two-point conversion throw to tight end Shipley provided the winning points.
“Jacob is a returning all-stater from last year as a sophomore and he is just a special gift,” Hendrix said. “He is one of those kids that watches football 24/7, studies the game inside and out and put the time in to get where he is at. He is one of them that has football smarts.
“He does things that if we do things by the seat of our pants sometimes, he can adjust. He is just one of those guys that is a special talent.
“Drew, on the other hand, is a workhorse. He has got more guts than probably all of us put together. He just came in during the middle of the year with an injury and started playing more quarterback exclusively and we just kind of took off from there.”
Mooneyhan has been Rector’s leading tackler the last two seasons.
“He’s our leading tackler, a hard-nosed kid that plays really hard,” Hendrix said. “Sometimes we kid that he misses as many as he makes, but he is always around the football and he is another one that is prepared just like all of our kids have in the weight room to get where he is at.
“He is not the most talented kid in the world, just a hard-nosed kid.”
Hendrix believes his run-oriented team is vastly improve since its last game with Izard County.
“I think everywhere,” Hendrix said. “Like I mentioned, we had to make a change at quarterback because of the injury and that kind of helped us some. Our offensive line and our defensive line, we have started playing better up front and for us, to run the style we do, that’s our bread and butter and who we are.”
Izard County advanced to the title game with a 62-56 win over Woodlawn with Izard County’s Wyatt Buchanan connecting with Malichi Cruz on 26-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
“That was a very interesting game,”Johnson said. “Woodlawn is a very good football team. We were actually in the lead for the most of that game. Then late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter they were able to come back, which as you know in these state playoff games that the turnover ratio kind of balances each other out…It just turned into who had the ball last it seems like.
“The finish of that game was like none that I have been a part of. It was just an absolutely unreal finish the game. We had the ball and was able to hold the ball, run the clock and make sure that we didn’t leave any time on it, had our last shot and it worked out. It was a really good, fun football game to be at.”
Johnson doesn’t think the stage will be too big for Izard County.
“I have kind of said this all year that we have 13 seniors, some starters and some of our key players,”Johnson said. “With that many leaders on the team, just the mentality and while at Izard County, these kids have had success, not in football, but on a a big stage before. This group of kids have the ability to want to win and work for each other as any group I have ever coached. I’m proud of them.
“As far as the big moment, we try to have as much fun and possible and we are going to go and do at what we do and let the chips fall.”