BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
After two convincing wins and an open date, unbeaten Harding Academy head coach Neil Evans is excited about what should his team’s toughest challenge so far this campaign.
Class 4A Harding Academy (2-0) will host Class 3A power Booneville (1-1), who features running backs Dax Goff (2,323 yards rushing) and Rylan Ray (1,027 yards and 12 TDs in 2021, season-ending ACL injury in 2022 season opener) to fuel a run-oriented flex-bone attack.
It is a match up of two programs that have each won 25 wins the past two seasons with the Wildcats appearing in four straight title games (winning three Class 3A titles before bumping up a class last season) and the Bearcats being in two of the last four Class 3A championship tilts.
“We have the challenge of two all-state, for sure one that is all state and another that is all-state caliber, we face the challenge of their tradition, the challenge of physicality,” Evans said. “And anytime you go play the flex bone, it you are not right (defensively), it will expose you big time.
“I think our guys will be very locked in to play them because we know who they are and what they possess.”
Arkansas linebacker commit Wyatt Simmons (6-3, 215) has been a standout performer for the Wildcats defensively this season.
Evans, 76-17 at the helm, notes the Harding Academy coaching staff is moving Simmons around similar to how the Dallas Cowboys are doing with star defender Micah Parsons.
“Tonight, we really got to showcase him and I think he is at his best when he blitzes,” Evans said. “Him coming off the edge, his ability to bend, his ability to redirect really, really stands out.
“We have tweaked just a few things in the system to try and fit him and in doing that we have been able to put him in a shot where we can feature him. We have structured the entire defense around him on trying to keep him free and keep him unblocked and let him go play.”
The offense is led this season by elusive quarterback Owen Miler, who had 3,677 yards and 39 touchdown passes last season and a talented receiving group in senior Kyle Hoover (82 catches, 1,206 yards, 19 TDs), junior Endy McGulliard (51 vatches, 781 yards and 6 scores and sophomore Nathan Corbiltt, who led the junior high team in receptions last year.
Harding Academy opened the season with a 55-40 win over Valley View in week zero before following that up with a 38-7 victory over visiting Camden Harmony Grove.
Evans, whose team lost to Malvern 64-39 last season in the title game, feels his squad made vast improvement between its first and second games.
“Last week (against Valley View) we were exposed a little bit in the secondary and that’s where we have some new people and we made that a big emphasis this past week in practice, getting our eyes right, getting our alignment right and so really trying to coach them up big time,” Evans said. “ I was just thankful that that showed up…We liked the guys, they were just unproven.
“We probably grew more in a week of practice in a week we have anytime since I have been here.”
Booneville whipped Ozark 48-35 on Sept. 1 before falling to Camden Fairview 30-22 last Friday.
The Bearcats went 12-3 last season with one of those losses being a 44-14 one to the Wildcats on Sept. 16 and the other two coming to rival Charleston.
Evans credits Harding Academy athletic director/baseball coach Shane Fullerton and the success he has brought to the overall athletic program, such as five state titles in the 2020-21 school year alone and 20 since 2010.
“Coach Fullerton, our athletic director, says the best thing we have got going is Wildcats Win and that permeates through all programs,” Evans said. “There is just a belief and a trust that I think is as much or more a reflection of our school climate. And I have said this to other people before, everybody is on one campus, even our little K through 3ers are in our pep rallies.
“So a lot of out its exceeds what I am doing specifically and moves more toward being in the right place at the right time in a school climate that makes it pretty easy to just carry it on.”
Photo by Dudley E. Dawson