By DUDLEY E. DAWSON
One of the most looked forward to Arkansas high school football games of the 2023 campaign finally arrives on Friday night.
Five-time defending state champion Bryant (8-1, 6-0) travels to face unbeaten Conway (9-0, 6-0) in a 7 p.m. contest at John McConnell Stadium.
The game took on extra limelight when Bryant program boss Buck James left his post to take over the head coaching job at Conway in late May.
“Well, it is a big game,” James said. “It’s for the conference championship, two good football teams that are undefeated in conference. One of them has won five straight championships in a row and one of them is trying to win the first time.
“I feel like it is a big game because it is the next game and is the last game of the conference season.”
Bryant’s head coach is now Quad Sanders, who served as the defensive coordinator for James.
“We are not making this game any bigger than it has to be and no bigger than the last game,” Sanders said. “For us, it is about running the gauntlet anyway with the last three – North Little Rock, Cabot and Conway.
“…But it is definitely a kick start to the playoffs and they are all big to us right now. It just happens to be Conway right now and it just happens to be the one that decides the number one seed.”
Bryant had won 53 consecutive games against in-state foes before falling to Little Rock Parkview 28-27 on Sept. 8.
The Hornets have ripped off six consecutive victories since that loss.
“We are as healthy as we have been all year,” Sanders. “We are playing a little bit better than we were earlier this year, but we still have a lot of growing to do because we are playing a lot of young guys, especially on defense. We started off with five or six defensive starters on defense, got down to 3 and are starting five sophomores on defense now.”
James, who has won 62 straight games over in-state opponents, took over at Conway when former Wampus Cats head coach Keith Fimple left to become Springdale’s new athletic director.
“I am really proud of our kids and our coaches,” James said. “It has been a lot of change, but there has also been a lot of things that have stayed the same.
“Anytime you have a coaching change and you have the success that we have had, it is a credit to those kids and those coaches that are here and making the transition smooth.
The transition between Coach Fimple and myself made it smoother and the kids have flourished with it. I couldn’t be happier.
“Usually when I got somewhere, it is the worst year that we have ever had, but this year has been a great year for us to have.”
Conway quarterback Donovan Omolo (6-2, 205) was a great signal caller to have when James arrived.
Omolo threw for 2,858 yards and 27 touchdowns last season and ran for 10 additional scores for what turned into a 10-3 squad.
“He is an unbelievable leader and a great football player,” James said. “He doesn’t get the credit he deserves as far as a football player. He has an unbelievable imagination. He sees it and he throws them when they are open and is as good a person off the field as he is on the field.”
James offered up a lofty comparison of Omolo to his former Bryant quarterback and current Arkansas pitcher Austin Ledbetter.
“He is just the total package and I compare him to Austin Ledbetter as a type of player and that is saying a lot for me to even mention anybody in same sentence as Austin Ledbetter,” James said. “But I would say that he is the closest thing I have been around.”
James is obviously familiar with his former Hornets, who has a standout quarterback of their own in Jordan Walker, who has thrown for 1,768 yards and 24 touchdowns this season.
“I know every single one of them,” James said. “They are tough, they expect to win, they have great discipline, they are very athletic and have 17 returning starters and I think we have about 5.
“They are an experienced football team and they expected to be here. There was no doubt in mind. They expect to be in the state championship game.”
“…We’ve got to play a team that expects to be here, has worked their tail off to be here. We have got to go out match their intensity and their discipline.”
“I am proud of the parents first of all because they have allowed us to coach our kids,” James said. “That is something I have been able to say in common at Camden Fairview, at Bryant, at Little Rock Christian and at Conway.
“I think nowadays and times that people underestimate that because to make a kid comfortable being uncomfortable, take coaching and criticism in the practice sessions is different these days. I think Conway has embraced that and I think our parents want us to coach them and they want them to be good.”
Photo courtesy of Donovan Omolo