The Uneven Playing Field: NWA vs. Central Arkansas

Sorry, Prince. "Purple Reign" belongs to the Fayetteville Bulldogs these days.

Sorry, Prince. “Purple Reign” belongs to the Fayetteville Bulldogs these days. Courtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

A casual observer might call the down-to-the-wire victory Fayetteville High pulled off at North Little Rock High on November 23 an act of God. North Little Rock had just finished surging back from a 24-6 deficit early in the fourth quarter to take a 28-27 lead with 30 seconds left in the 7A state playoff semifinals. As the teams lined up for the ensuing kickoff,  the home crowd was rocking. Surely, after so many close calls, North Little Rock would make its long-awaited appearance in the state’s football championship game.

Then, the most statistically probable miracle in Arkansas sports happened.

In 25 seconds, Fayetteville drove the ball down the field with almost surgical precision. A 22-yard kickoff return and two passes totaling 37 yards led to a 38-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights and cut through the heart of every blue and yellow clad fan in the stands that bitter cold night.

Was it manifest destiny that Fayetteville return to its third straight championship game, where it would win its second straight title?

Maybe.

But, more likely, it was only the latest result of Arkansas sports’ own law of probability: Most things being unequal, northwest Arkansas football teams have the edge over central Arkansas counterpart long before they ever take the field.

Since 2004, no central Arkansas team has made the finals of 7A, the state’s largest classification. A team from the northwest, including Fort Smith, has won the title every year since 2005. Each runner-up since 2006 has also been from NWA. This year, NWA dominance extended to the second-largest classification when Greenwood beat Pine Bluff 51-44.

Central Arkansas’ biggest schools keep falling short. “Frankly, it’s almost embarrassing to those who have some pride in your athletic programs,” says Frank Williams, the athletic director at Little Rock McClellan High School, which is in 6A.

Why can’t anybody beat NWA?

“All coaches have talked about it from time to time, and everyone has their own theories,” says Shane Patrick, head coach at Springdale High School and former president of the Arkansas Football Coaches Association.

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North Little Rock’s loss to Fayetteville only latest example of NWA dominance in high school football

North Little Rock nearly pulled off the improbable Friday night.

The Charging Wildcats were down 24-6 to Fayetteville early in the fourth quarter, and any hopes of reaching the championship game were quickly slipping away. But, with the help of a few big plays and the mounting support of a home crowd, NLR righted the ship and began quickly chipping away at the lead. With about 30 seconds left, North Little Rock converted a two-point play to push ahead  28-27 and cap a stunning 22-3 run in less than 10 minutes. The miraculous comeback neared completion.

Yet, even more improbably, a central Arkansas team was poised to win a semifinal game in the state’s largest classification – something that hasn’t happened in eight years. Moreover, since 2006, every 7A title game has featured northwest Arkansas teams.

North Little Rock’s successful reversal of the trend was not be to be.

The Fayetteville Bulldogs returned NLR’s ensuing kickoff to their own 42 yard line, then completed two passes for 37 yards to set up a game-winning 38-yard field goal.

And so, just like that, the 2004 Little Rock Central Tigers remain the last central Arkansas high school to not only win a state title in the largest classification, but even play for one at War Memorial Stadium.

Since then, in the playoffs, NWA teams are 26-10 against central Arkansas teams.

Here are the results from the last two rounds:

2005
Finals
Springdale 54, West Memphis 20

Semifinals
Springdale 49, LR Catholic 14
West Memphis 17, FS Northside 14 OT

2006
Finals
FS Southside 23, Rogers 22

Semifinals
FS Southside 40, NLR 34 2 OT
Rogers 35, Fayetteville 26

2007
Finals
Fayetteville 28, Springdale Har-Ber 7

Semifinals
Fayetteville 24, Bentonville 7
Springdale Har-Ber 47, Russellville 23

2008
Finals
Bentonville 32, FS Southside 20

Semifinals
Bentonville 27, Russellville 0
FS Southside 8, Springdale Har-Ber 7

2009
Finals
Springdale Har-Ber 27, FS Southside 6

Seminfinals
Springdale Har-Ber 14, Cabot 10
FS Southside 24, NLR 23

2010
Finals
Bentonville 49, Fayetteville 28

Semifinals
Bentonville 49, Springdale Har-Ber 20
Fayetteville 24, FS Southside 21

2011
Finals
Fayetteville 29, Bentonville 28 OT

Semifinals
Fayetteville 23, FS Southside 20
Bentonville 31, NLR 7

2012

Finals

Fayetteville vs Bentonville

Semifinals

Fayetteville 30, North Little Rock 28

Bentonville 28, FS Southside 21

After the game, I spoke to Jamie Washington, an assistant football coach at Little Rock Fair, about why central Arkansas teams have so drastically fallen behind their NWA counterparts.

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Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley discusses hypothetical overall state football playoffs

Pulaski Academy football coach Kevin Kelley doesn’t like his players to wait around long before a game.

To Kelley, extra time on the field doesn’t help his kids play better. In fact, it can make the experience less enjoyable. “Most teams warm up for an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes before a game,” he says. “We try to get to games 25 minutes before kickoff because we don’t want our kids sitting and getting stressed out and things like that.”

Instead, he tries to take his players minds off the game at hand. They’ll grab a bite to eat, or catch a movie. Which was the idea a couple weeks ago before Pulaski Academy’s state playoff semifinal at its west Little Rock campus. The Bruins planned to see Immortals, a rah-rah take on a bloodthirsty army’s quest in mythic ancient Greece. Instead, because of a time mix-up, they got part one of  The Twlight Saga: Breaking Dawn.

“We thought Twilight was going to be all about vampires, and it turned out to be a love story,” Kelley recalls. “That was a miserable movie for teenage boys to see. They all hated it. But we had fun talking about it, so it worked.”

A lot has worked for Pulaski Academy this fall.

In the semifinal, the Bruins beat Pine Bluff Dollarway 51-32. On Saturday, the Bruins (14-0) won the 4A state title by defeating Malvern 63-28. In both games, the Bruins didn’t wait long to strike, outscoring their competition by a total of 87-13 in the first halves.

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