Junction City in state finals thanks to comebacks
Frayed nerves. Moments of angst. High drama. And victory.
This has been Junction City’s run to the 3A state finals in a nutshell, and it certainly has been far from conventional.
In all three of their playoff wins, Junction City has trailed in the fourth quarter.
Against Harding Academy, Hishmma Taylor’s successful run on a two-point conversion following a 17-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-3 with 1:13 left gave the Dragons the lead for good.
A week later against Clinton, the Dragons went right to the wire, as Shuvasceiaye Frazier’s 1-yard run with nine seconds left proved to be the difference in the contest.
Last week against Osceola, the Dragons didn’t need last-second heroics from the offense to pull out a win, it was the defense, namely Keyvontae Haynes’ second fourth-quarter interception in the red zone coupled with Taylor and the Dragons’ offensive line being able to run out the remaining 2:40 that sealed the win.
The momentum swings in the last two games have been vast.
Against Clinton, the Dragons led 36-13 midway through the third quarter only to see the visitors
rally to take a 43-42 lead before Frazier’s aforementioned touchdown run was the final say on matters.
Last week, the swing was even bigger.
Junction City raced out a 30-7 lead just moments into the second quarter, but the Seminoles scored 38 unanswered points to lead 38-30 before the Dragons’ third consecutive fourth-quarter rally sent them to Friday’s championship game against Rivercrest.
Needless to say, fans attending Junction City’s three playoff games have gotten their money’s worth along with hoarse voices and chewed nails.
“We made mistakes in all three of the games that we probably could’ve put one or two of those teams away if we played mistake-free football,” said Junction City coach Steven Jones. “But just the battle and the body language of our guys that you see on the field, they just feel like they’re never out of it.
“It doesn’t matter what the score is. As long as there is time left on the clock, we really feel like we have a chance to win, and our kids keep competing.
“That’s why we have the opportunity to win a state title.”
Close wins in the playoffs have been a rarity for the Dragons.
Junction City’s three playoff wins this fall have all been in single digits by a combined 14 points.
In the 14 playoff games the Dragons played during their run of 2A state titles from 201214, Junction City played only two games that were decided within 10 points with the Dragons’ dramatic 28-27 win over Bearden in the 2012 state championship game being the closest.
The only other two playoff wins the Dragons own that were in single digits in this decade came in consecutive weeks in 2011 when Junction City topped Mineral Springs 21-20 in overtime before downing Magazine 9-3 the following week.
Although Junction City’s games have had many peaks and valleys, Jones said he keeps his focus on making adjustments.
“We just try to play the game,” Jones said. “We just try to keep pushing our kids to compete and keep fighting and keep battling.
“We try to make a lot of corrections and see the mistakes that we’ve made throughout the game and have those fixed, put together a good fourth quarter and be there at the end.”
Fast starts and strong finishes have been a staple of the 2017 playoffs for the Dragons, who have outscored opponents 28-7 in the opening period and 36-16 in the fourth quarter.
Junction City’s defense also has pitched shutouts in four of those six quarters.
The Dragons have also have had a penchant for forcing turnovers at critical junctures.
In addition to his two interceptions against Osceola, Haynes had one against Clinton to end a drive in Junction City territory, and the Dragons had two huge turnovers in the fourth quarter against Harding Academy to help start and end their win over the Wildcats.
With Harding Academy leading 30-23 and just five yards away from extending their lead, Frazier intercepted a pass in the end zone.
After the Dragons marched 80 yards to take the lead on Taylor’s fourth-down run and two-point conversion, Dhante Gibson stripped the ball loose from quarterback Davis Morgan and Terrell Gibson recovered the fumble to end the Wildcats’ hopes for a comeback of their own.
The defense has also played a pivotal role in the Dragons’ fast starts, scoring twice in the opening quarter.
Jalen Davis returned an interception for a touchdown to open the scoring against Harding Academy, and Gibson did likewise against Osceola.
The fast pace that Junction City plays at on offense has also paid off in the fourth quarter, particularly against Osceola when Junction City’s offensive line paved the way for Taylor to pick up 46 yards on the ground to run out the clock.
“You’ve got to be able to run the ball to be successful,” Jones said.
“Our conditioning is a big part of that, and to be able to push those guys around in the fourth quarter shows how hard our kids work in practice. They get ready and work hard throughout the week and go out on Friday night and have fun.”
Regardless of how close the Dragons have come to elimination, survive and advance is the name of the game at this time of the year, and time and again, Junction City has a found a way to do just that.
“This late in the season, just coming out with a win is the most important thing,” Jones said.
“Once the clock is out of time, and you’re on top, you don’t really look back and think about the negative part of it. You just correct the mistakes that you’ve made and move forward to the next week.
“I’m proud of the response from our team. We cut down on penalties tremendously last week. I think we had only five penalties, so just trying to continue to get our guys to put their best product on the field and give great effort. That’s what they’ve done all year.”
Wrapping up: Junction City's Jvacye Cook (20) tries to make a tackle on Clinton's Ethen Drake during their showdown in the 3A quarterfinals at David Carpenter Stadium. The Dragons will take on Rivercrest for the 3A state championship Friday at 7 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.