In the dead heat of August, players across Arkansas hit the grass, lace up their cleats, and load on the pads. The blood, sweat, and tears of long pre-season practices are replaced with dreams of victory. These student-athletes become motivated not by fear of loss, but rather by the opportunity to play on the natural state’s biggest stage. Their desire for a state championship matches their desire to share the traditional of their city with the uproarious crowds at War Memorial stadium. Their tradition manifests with the school’s name printed on their jerseys.
As the season opens, each school takes stock, hoping their visions of grandeur
Pine Bluff Zebras
At Pine Bluff high school, those visions came true in 2014 and 2015 with consecutive 6A state titles.
They have been passing down zebra pride from generation to generation. Their belief in each other not only lifts their team’s spirit, but also the fan base that surrounds them.
At Pop’s barber shop in Pine Bluff, one expects both a sharp haircut and a friendly conversation about the zebras. While amicable, the barber shop talk is ripe with expectations. A conference crown is not just desired but expected, and a state championship is openly discussed.
“We gotta get them ready for the game,” explained Greg Walker, Pop’s general manager. Walker said that the zebra talk motivates the team, most of whom get their haircut in the shop.
Fridays under the lights at Jordan Stadium are a way of life for some residents.
With no track around the field, the fans are nearly on top of players. Those attending are anxious to notch another win to the school’s impressive tally. Their 711 wins make them one of the most successful programs both in Arkansas and the country. Kids attend games with their parents, watching neighbors and family on the field. They too dream of one day adding more hardware to the cabinets in the athletic department.
In the stadium, both during and before games, the crowds sing their beloved fight song. Pine Bluff is one of the only high schools in the state that have a completely original tune, not borrowing from a more well-known tune. Like most things in Jordon Stadium, the song is yet another tradition.
“Coming from this area and being able to play around good coaches and great players was a benefit,” said defensive coordinator, Rod Stinson.
Stinson, a former Arkansas razorback, said he feels privileged to set a good example for the students he coaches. Having been in their shoes, he understands the expectations and the pressure.
“It was tough; there were some challenges, but those are everywhere you go in life. For me, football was that escape, the way out. [It was] the opportunity to be able to play on the next level.”
Playing for your school and your town has its difficulties. Expectations of victory are not easily met as head coach Booby Bolding knows well.
“They were expecting us to win immediately, and we didn’t,” remembered Bolding.
Bolding opened his career with the Zebras with a lackluster 2-7-1.
“Their expectation level around here is sometimes very unrealistic,” said Bolding. However, Bolding enjoys the challenge. After nine years as the head Zebra, he still keeps the same mindset at the beginning of each season: winning a state championship.
“It must be that; we have to win at a high rate. Our fans are expecting to watch football into late November and December.”
Bolding’s drive has proven lucrative, as the Zebras will take the field as defending state champs for the second straight year.
At Pop’s, Walker and company have not forgotten those trips to War Memorial. Moreover, they are expecting trip to Little Rock again come December.
“I think he's doing a good job; his third championship is coming up this year,” said Walker. “We got a whole other unit coming, so all other teams better get ready. Pine Bluff is back on the scene.”
Bolding understands what a third championship will mean for the town, and he said the students have taken it to heart.
“When the lights come on, they're going to play. I don’t give pregame talks. They're going to come out, and they're going to perform.”
The rivalry between the Falcons and Red Devils is no secret to those in Pulaski County.
For decades, the North Pulaski and Jacksonville teams have fought for bragging rights.
But following the formation of the Jacksonville School District, these once bitter enemies suddenly found themselves on the same sideline.
"I was really shocked, because I heard it was going happen after I graduated.” said Kendrick Rhynes, senior defensive lineman. “But, since it happened, it's still cool. [I] got love for all my teammates."
The merger between Jacksonville and North Pulaski happened this summer, so any hard feelings between the two schools had to disappear pretty quickly.
If the idea of two rival schools joining forces sounds like a good movie, well, that's partly why the team is now called the Titans. Head coach Barry Hickingbotham said the former North Pulaski players have made it really easy on everybody.
"Great kids, great work ethic, and they just fit right in as one of our own. So, it's been smooth. And they're working hard, and we're glad to have them," said Hickingbotham.
The players said whatever bad blood existed between fans of the two schools did not filter down to them.
"It's pretty easy, because we all got the same mindset: we want to win. We want to be a good team, so everybody wants to be a leader,” said Rhynes. "We grew up with these people.”
Jacksonville moves up to class 6A this year, and they know they will likely be underdogs. But, they believe they will surprise people in North Pulaski County and the state.
"Right now, we're scrappy. We're working hard. We don’t have the numbers that we did last year, but I'd rather have 30 people working for one purpose, as hard as they can, than 105 guys that just are there to wear a uniform," said Brandon McGuire, a junior offensive lineman.
68 miles to the South of North Pulaski, the Rison Wildcats of Cleveland Country have been a mainstay for nearly a century.
The Wildcats first took their field in 1937, and they have yet to hang a runner-up banner. They only wish to remind themselves of their success, as they strive for newer heights.
The Wildcats have brought home eight state titles, under six different head coaches.
“In 1927, the Rison business men wanted to have football like the other towns in Arkansas. So, they raised $300 for equipment,” recalled Stan Sadler, who has covered the Wildcats for nearly 40 years.
That $300 bought much more than helmets and cleats. It bought a foundation.
“We start in the 7th grade and talk about the history and expectations,” said head coach Clay Totty.
In the program’s early days members of the town would fill home and away bleachers, cheering on their beloved Wildcats. The last person in town was told to turn the lights off as they left to the game.
66 years after their first championship in 1950, Totty enters his 19th season at the helm. He passes his knowledge of the past onto the champions of the future.
“We're about winning championships, and I think a lot of them are understanding. You want that so bad for them, and you want to raise that flag again to say ‘Rison football endured,’” said Totty.
The Robinson football team still celebrates its sole state championship in 1980. In this election year, the Senators are attempting to add another chapter to their history
With a new facility and field, Robinson is ready to show the 4A conference it is ready to play.
“We feel like we're on the verge of exploding,” said Koilen Jackson.
Jackson has already committed to Arkansas, but he thinks he transfer to Robinson will be meet with success.
“I think we're going to be a dominant team.”
Jackson will be switching from playing quarterback to wide receiver this season. And the transition bodes well for both the Hogs and the Senators.
“The transition was easier than I thought it would be, and now Robinson is like home for me,” said Jackson.
On the far side of the field, senior Nathan Page will be the second part in the dual wideout threat for the Senators. Page, one of the best players in the state, will likely draw dual coverage from opposing defenses. The combined stress of both Page and Jackson will be a daunting task for even the most accomplished defenses.
“It is hard; I don’t know how you’ll do it,” said Page.
With TJ Hammonds playing for the Hogs this year, Navy-commit Myles Fells is stepping up as the starting running back.
“I hope we're able to come at them in waves. We've got seven or eight kids who are being recruited by Division-I schools,” said head coach Todd Eskola. “We want to be a complete program, not just one or two names.”
Jackson is looking to cap off his senior year in Little Rock.
“The state championship is my goal,” said Jackson.
Saline Co. Coaching Carousel
No matter the year, no matter the state, and no matter the offseason. The coaching carousel will never stop spinning, and this year the spinning was rapid.
A year ago, Bryant was Paul Calley's home. He led the Hornets to a 9-1 record in the regular season. But after nearly a decade at the helm and over 100 wins later, It was time for a change. In December, he accepted the job at Haskell Harmony Grove high school.
“It's re-energized me. I'm excited to come to work every day. I even feel younger,” said Calley.
Calley's final game with the Hornets made every fan’s heart race, young and old. It was a heartbreaking 24-30 loss to eventual 7A state champions Fayetteville and his former boss, head coach Daryl Patton.
Neither expected to face each other again in the first game of this season.
12 miles to the east, Patton was hired by Bauxite in May, following his resignation from Fayetteville. The first game on the schedule: a showdown with the old friend he booted from the 7A playoffs just a year earlier.
“Coach Calley and I have been friends forever; he was one of my assistants for years,” said Patton. “When we play each other, we want to beat each other, but after the game we are going to be close as ever.”
Four miles North of Bauxite, Buck James took over for Calley in December.
“The hype before the game is just as big as the game is. It starts on the Monday, and it doesn't stop until the game is over on Friday night,” said James.
James may be a Salt Bowl rookie, but he knows how to win. James captured a state title with Camden-Fairview in 2012, and now his path to bring one home in Bryant starts with Benton.
“I think it's a great thing for Saline County, both high schools and both communities. You know it puts you on the map. It's a good football town, and I'm excited to coach in it.”
While Buck's Bryant Hornets prepare for kickoff, just seven miles to the southwest, Brad Harris' Benton Panthers are doing the same.
“I'm really enjoying it; I feel like a cheerleader, because I'm getting onto someone sometimes. That's the role I want though as a head coach,” said Harris.
Harris is no stranger to the expectations for the Bryant game. He spent the past two seasons as that defensive coordinator, and now he's calling the shots as head coach.
“You know they have no excuses when they walk onto War Memorial, and there's 30,000 fans there. I just have to learn to not get too excited and be that cool head for our team.”
The games start Monday night, and they all hope to end their season has champions in Little Rock.
Monday, August 29
Robinson at Hot Springs Lakeside
Thursday, September 1
Haskell Harmony Grove at Bauxite
Friday, September 2
Pine Bluff at Cabot
Little Rock Mills at Jacksonville
Rison at Fordyce
Benton at Bryant (at War Memorial)