Junction City to face Rivercrest in AAA state championship.
Powerhouses Junction City, Rivercrest meet for 3A state crown
Two schools that are well-versed in playing on Arkansas’ biggest stage for high school football collide tonight with the 3A state championship at stake.
Junction City (13-0), the 6-3A champions who are aiming to cap a perfect season, take on Rivercrest (12-2), the 3-3A co-champions who are looking to win their first state title since 2010.
Game time is set for 7 p.m. from War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
The Dragons reached the state finals with three straight fourth-quarter comebacks to knock off Harding Academy (3130), Clinton (50-43) and Osceola (44-38) following a first-round bye.
Since losing at Newport in Week 8, the Colts have won six straight to reach the state finals for the first time since 2015.
In the playoffs, Rivercrest has beaten Bald Knob (34-21), Melbourne (37-8), Mayflower (41-14) and McGehee (18-13).
Tonight’s contest is also a rematch from the second round of the 2016 playoffs where the Colts eliminated the Dragons 14-13, marking the last time Junction City lost.
Kentavious Robinson, who had over 1,500 yards rushing as a sophomore and 901 yards on the ground as a junior this fall, has been on the sidelines with a broken arm suffered during the first quarter of the Colts’ win over Osceola in Week 10.
However, Rivercrest coach Kelly Chandler said the junior could make his return and is listed as a game-time decision.
“He’s progressed,” Chandler said. “He has a broken arm, so if he does play, it would probably be defense. I don’t know about him carrying the ball. We’ll have to pad up that arm if he can play, but we would be glad to have him back either way.”
Tonight’s game is also the final one for both schools as members of the 3A ranks. Starting next year, Rivercrest will move up to 4A, while Junction City returns to 2A.
On the surface, this appears to be a contest with the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
All season long, Junction City’s fastpaced offense has lit up scoreboards and racked up yards at an enormous rate.
In 13 games, the Dragons have scored 623 points while racking up over 6,000 yards of total offense.
However, Rivercrest’s defense has allowed just
14 points per game in the playoffs, and has lived in opposing backfields by registering 143 tackles for a loss during the season.
For Junction City coach Steven Jones, the Colts’ defense is the toughest the Dragons have seen this year.
“Definitely,” Jones said. “Overall, this is probably the most gifted defense that we’ve seen this year as far as athleticism goes. Every film that I’ve seen, they’re flying to the football and tackling people in the backfield for losses.
“They’re very similar on the defensive side to what we saw last week. They fly to the ball so well, so I would say that Rivercrest is the best defense that we’ve faced.”
Chandler credited defensive coordinator Johnny Fleming for the Colts’ success.
“I think coach Fleming does a great job of planning,” Chandler said. “We’ve got some pretty good quickness and strength up front. We try to use that with slants and zone, and the kids have responded.
“That’s one of the reasons we’ve been pretty successful in this playoff run. We’ve been in the backfield a lot, and we pride ourselves on being tough up front and try to get penetration.”
A big reason Rivercrest’s defense has been outstanding has been due to their defensive line.
“Their D-Line is very solid,” Jones said. “Their nose guard (Dylan Trapp) is a big, athletic kid that is very talented that we’ll probably have to have two guys on for every play to keep him out of the backfield.
“Their defensive ends aren’t very big, but they get off blocks very well and make plays. Being smaller defensive ends, we’ll have to do a good job with our pad level when we go to try to kick those guys out and things of that nature.
“They have a very, very solid core up front. They run a 3-4 scheme, and those four linebacker spots are speed-type guys. They really run to the football well. They pursue and fly to the ball. Every time you see them make a tackle, there’s five or six guys around the ball.
“Their front seven is very athletic. Their secondary has just as many interceptions as we do. They’ve made plays back there on the back end.”
The Colts have five players with over 10 tackles for a loss this season with junior Kendarius Brooks and senior Jamyka Franks each registering 20 tackles for a loss. Brooks also leads the team in sacks with four.
Franks, who has also had a solid postseason at running back with Robinson sidelined, has played a pivotal role in leading Rivercrest’s defense.
“He’s been our defensive leader,” Chandler said. “If he doesn’t bring the energy, then our defense doesn’t have energy, so he’s a key for us. He’s an excitable kid and he gets after it.
“We played him at defensive end and at linebacker some, but he really likes to play in the line and use his quickness to get by people, so that’s probably mostly where he’ll play this week. He’s not that big, but he’s got tremendous quickness and a good motor.”
Trapp, a senior who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, will be a tough chore for Junction City’s offensive line.
“Dylan played as a sophomore, then he kind of took some time off from his grades, and he didn’t play last year because of his grades,” Chandler said. “He came back this year really ready and wanting to play, and he’s been a great leader for our line all year. He’s been steady all year.
“He’s really hungry because he didn’t play last year. He’s had a good year both offensively and defensively. We try to sub him and keep everybody fresh on defense, so he comes out some on defense, but on offense, we can’t take him out. He’s too valuable. He’s had a great year for us.”
In the secondary, senior Zorey Chipman has been a big playmaker with nine interceptions, including three against Bald Knob in the opening round of the playoffs.
“He’s grown,” Chandler said. “Early in the year, he was having trouble, and he was getting beat sometimes. He’s grown from the first game until now. He was the guy that they picked on and threw at, but now he takes advantage of that. That’s where all of the interceptions have come. He’s gotten better and better.”
With the success Rivercrest has had, how will the Dragons go about trying to solve the Colts’ defense? Jones said it will come down to execution. “We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Jones said. “We’ve just got to go out and execute. We’re big up front as well, and I feel we’re just as athletic top to bottom as they are, so it’s going to be a good matchup.”
While Jones is tasked with trying to keep the Colts from disrupting his offense, Chandler must try to find a way to slow down the Junction City senior trio of quarterback Shuvasceiaye Frazier, running back Hishmma Taylor and wide receiver Jalen Davis.
“They’re very explosive,” Chandler said. “They’ve got three players that can take the ball anywhere on the field and take it the distance any time they touch it. They’re very dangerous, and being three of them, it’s hard to key on one of them, so it’s real tough.
“Nobody has stopped them yet, so I think we’ve just got to slow them down and have a little bit of control of the game.
“If it gets out of hand, I don’t know if we can score as many points as they can. Their defense is pretty good, too. We’re going to try and hang in there as best we can, but we know it’s going to be an uphill battle with their offense.”
Frazier, who has completed nearly 54 percent of his passes for 1,198 yards and 17 touchdowns with five interceptions while adding 1,397 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, drew plenty of praise from Chandler.
“He’s probably the best running quarterback we’ve seen,” Chandler said. “I don’t think he’s the best thrower, but he is the best runner, and probably the best combination as far as throwing and running we’ve seen all year.”
Taylor, who has 28 touchdowns and stands just 50 yards shy of the 2,500-yard barrier, has shown plenty of growth since last year’s encounter.
“You can tell he’s more comfortable back there,” Chandler said.
“He didn’t get the starting job last year until late. You can just see he’s comfortable in what he’s supposed to be doing and what his assignments are. He follows his blockers better than he did last year.”
Although Rivercrest is predominantly a team that runs the football, Jones said the Dragons’ defense has a difficult test in front of them thanks to the myriad of formations they utilize out of the Wing-T.
“They run the ball really about 90 percent of the time and they’re very good at it,” Jones said. “They base out of the Wing-T, but they’ll show a ton of formations and a lot of different personnel groups.
“They may be in five wide in one series and a wildcat look the next, so we have to figure out what they like the most.”
Junior quarterback Demilon Brown leads a balanced rushing attack with 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns while also completing nearly 47 percent of his passes for 612 yards with seven touchdowns against four interceptions.
“He’s been the rock that everybody depends on,” Chandler said. “We’ve had injuries, especially late in the year, and he’s been the same great player and leader.”
Jones said the Dragons will have to keep a close eye on the junior, who has topped the century mark in each of the last five weeks, including 150 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries last week against McGehee.
“He’s probably the best playmaker that we will have faced all year,” Jones said. “He is very smooth and runs it very well. If he gets out in space and you give him a step, he’s gone. We have to come up with a good plan to contain him.”
Sophomore J.D. Winda ranks as one of the top underclassmen and two-way players in the state regardless of class.
After a solid freshman season, Winda has rushed for 967 yards and six touchdowns while also leading the Colts with 14 catches for 287 yards and five touchdowns. On defense, he leads the team in tackles and has 19 tackles for a loss.
“He’s a guy that they will put out in space a little bit, and they’ll also line him up in the backfield. They like to run the counter play with him,” Jones said.
“He’s been very solid for them. I don’t think he’s had a fumble this season. He’s done a very good job of holding on to the football, so we’ll have to have an idea of where he is.”
Chandler added that the sophomore has been nursing an ankle injury suffered three weeks ago against Melbourne, but he expects him to be close to 100 percent for tonight’s game.
“He’s gotten better each week, and I think he’ll be close to full speed,” Chandler said. “Hopefully, he can give us some runs that we haven’t had in the last few weeks.”
With Robinson out, Franks has filled in nicely, rushing for 152 yards and four touchdowns on 18 carries in their win over Mayflower in the quarterfinals, and Chandler credited his kids for moving forward despite Robinson’s injury.
“The kids just don’t want to lose,” Chandler said. “We pride ourselves on not having excuses for anything and being mentally tough. We just moved some people around and tried to fill the gaps. We moved Franks from fullback to halfback, took a tight end and put him at fullback and tried to make it work.
“The kids have responded. Franks has had a great playoff run. It’s just one of those things that we’re not going to use as an excuse. The other team isn’t going to feel sorry for you. You just have to keep playing, so that’s what we did.”
Junction City has seen a variety of offenses in their three playoff games, and Jones believes that will help prepare them for the Colts.
“We’ve played three very good offenses the last three weeks that do a lot of different things,” Jones said. “We’ve really seen it all throughout the playoffs.
“A couple of different hard-nosed schemes, a couple of different spread-type schemes. I think it’s gotten us ready to play somebody that’s more multiple, and that’s what I see with Rivercrest with so many different formations, so having seen different offenses the past three weeks gives us an advantage.”
If the Colts are to end Junction City’s perfect season and win the state title, Chandler said their defense must play well.
“We’ve got to tackle,” Chandler said. “If we don’t tackle those guys and keep them controlled somewhat, it’s going to be a long night.”
For the Dragons, Jones said his team cannot turn the ball over against the Colts, who reminded him of Osceola.
“We’ve got to take care of the football. That is the key,” Jones said. “Ball security is the key. We’ve got to take care of the football and get some takeaways on defense. Athletically, they match with what we saw last week. They’re a very tough-nosed football team.”
Celebrating: Junction City's Jack Smith (51) congratulates Hishmma Taylor (5) along with Trey Miner (66) after Taylor's successful run on a two-point conversion during the Dragons' win over Osceola in the 3A semifinals last Friday at David Carpenter...