Harding Academy takes aim at fourth straight grid crown
BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Harding Academy may have moved up a football classification this year, but it will end the season in the same place once again.
The Wildcats (12-0), winner of the state’s last three Class 3A grid titles, will face Malvern (11-2) in this year’s Class 4A championship game Saturday at noon inside War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Harding Academy head coach Neil Evans is looking to win his school’s 10th gridiron state championship overall.
“Just really, really humbled right now and realize how fortunate I am to be at Harding Academy, to have a chance to represent our players and to represent an institution that is very near and dear to heart,” Evans said.
The Wildcats rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit to down Arkadelphia 31-28 last Friday when field goal kicker and Mississippi State walk on pledge Kyle Ferrie drilled a 31-yarder as time expired.
“Excited to be here and it is a little bit surreal,” Evans said. “I am sure most of your guys are familiar with how the game last Friday ended. There is a little bit of an element where I still feel like I am living in a dream while, at the same time, trying to ground myself back to getting ready our team ready to play for one more.”
Harding Academy took over the ball with the game tied 6:10 left on the clock and proceeded to march 77 yards in 14 plays and turned it over to Ferrie, who has family ties to Mississippi State and grew up a Bulldogs fan.
Evans admits that his play-calling was dictated by the presence of Ferrie, who was also offered a chance to walk on by Arkansas, Baylor and Oklahoma and had an offer from Air Force.
“There was no question,” Evans said. “We were going to try and be somewhat aggressive until we got in field goal range. Fortunately we were able to run the ball down the stretch there so the play calling was able to remain less aggressive. But it was very much talked about on the head set about how we are going to play to kick here, don’t turn the ball over, play to kick.
“We had the momentum and we were at home so worst case scenario we go to overtime. I liked our chances in overtime because I thought they were a little bit tired.
“…Certainly once we got inside the 40, it very much effected the play calling. We essentially wasted a play to try and get it on a hash before that kick. He and I had a conversation in the huddle before about where do you want the ball. That was all discussed.”
Malvern comes in of a 56-37 win over Nashville and features quarterback Cedric Simmons (2,359 passing yards, 1,119 yards rushing, 20 touchdowns), tailback Jalen Dupree (2,359 yards rushing, 38 total TDs) and wide receiver Dylan Carradine (49 catches, 1,000 yards and nine scores.
“They do a really good job of giving you much of the same pictures, but just making a very small tweak maybe with the fullback that adjusts his leverage,” Evans said. “The closest thing I have seen is Ouachita Baptist, where they feature the quarterback in the run game and that is what Malvern does, too.
“…I think we have to do a really good job of recognizing the tweaks, make adjustments and match personnel. “
Harding Academy sophomore quarterback Owen Miller has completed 221 of 278 passes this season for 3,046 yards with 35 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
He took over for Arkansas 2023 pitching commit Kade Smith, who chose to not play football his senior season after leading the Wildcats to last season’s state title.
Evans shared his first conversation with Miller, who had led the junior high to an unbeaten season, after Smith announced his decision.
“I said, ‘hey, man, this is what you wanted and you got my support’ and he was like ‘yes, sir, let’s roll,’” Evans said. “He didn’t really flinch. I don’t know what did after he hung up the phone, but he put on a really good face for me during that conversation.
“…It was like we never miss a beat and that has everything to do with him and nothing to do with me. It’s remarkable. He is obviously a talented football player, but to handle the mental load, not just processing the play book and whatever else comes with that when being thrust into that situation, especially late in the game at his age, it did it a lot better than me.”
The defense is led by senior defensive end Levi Mercer (6-4, 225), who has 78 tackles with a whopping 22 sacks this season, and linebacker Wyatt Simmons (6-2,205).
“Levi will start in his fourth straight championship game,” Evans said. “He has started from the second quarter of the first round playoff game in 2019…He had two sacks in the state championship game as a freshman against Osceola so we knew he had something to him a freshman.
“He really came into his own, put on about 18 pounds in the offseason, which really has had a huge effect, not necessarily in in pass rush, but in the run game.”
Simmons (6-2,205), the son of Harding Academy head football coach Paul Simmons, has 71 tackles with six sacks among his 14 stops for lost yardage.
“Wyatt is kind of a unique situation, too,” Evans said. “Obviously very talented, but we felt like going into the summer and fall camp that he and Levi were going to be on opposite sides of each other.
“But because of an injury to one of other linebackers, he ended up sliding to the Mike linebacker spot and it didn’t take about four snaps before we realized that we have something special here. He had got a lot of upside. He is still somewhat raw, but certainly he is better from week zero to now.”
Evans was curious about how the move up a classification due to the Arkansas Activities Association would turn out for the Wildcats.
“I think it is probably hard to quantify,” Evans said. “…For me, I think it says the most about our staff. We have been able to retain our coaching staff so there is a lot of familiarity. The gap in 3A and 4A is certainly greater. You just see it in talent from top to bottom.
“…But we had been in big games regardless of the talent and I think that also plays into it. I don’t think the moment has been so far too big for our players.”