Pine Bluff Police Department Chief Ivan Whitfield and Assistant Chief Kelvin Sergeant addressed the Zebras football team Thursday in hopes of encouraging the young men ahead of their biggest game of the year.
Whitfield told the team that the department was behind them and that the PD is there for them in good times, not just bad.
But soon after the pep talk, the Zebras regained focus on tonight's title game.
The Zebras (11-1, 7-0) and the Greenwood Bulldogs (12-0, 7-0) stand in the way of each other's ultimate goal: To win a 6A state championship. For months, both teams have been on a title chase that will come to a stop at War Memorial Stadium tonight. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Prior to the season, Hooten's Arkansas Football predicted the Zebras and the Bulldogs to finish atop their respective conferences in the 6A. Although they may have been highly regarded outside of the camp, according to Pine Bluff Head Coach Bobby Bolding, they've gotten more than they had expected from this group.
"I think the tradition kicked in," Bolding said. "The process developed as we went along through the season."
The tradition that Bolding speaks of has been long-lasting. Under his tenure, the Zebras are 101-34-2. Since 2009 when they lost in the state finals, Pine Bluff has made deep runs into the playoffs annually. The Zebras recently won back-to-back state championships in 2014 and 2015.
"Well, I think if you go back to '09 when we went to the championship, we've been in the semi-finals every year since," Bolding said. "When you get to that point you have a chance to win a state championship. We really took a look at things after the '08 season and refined our calendar so we won't burn the kids out. That's really helped us, and when you start going the kids start expecting it."
Greenwood has become accustomed to success, as their Head Coach Rick Jones has created a winning culture. The Bulldogs have made back-to-back state championship game appearances, but they just haven't gotten over that hump since winning three straight from 2010-2012. In 2015, they lost to Pine Bluff 28-21, and last season they fell at the hands of Russellville 37-23.
Greenwood is perfect on the season, and since the month of October they haven't given up more than 17 points in a game while scoring around 40 points per game. Bolding puts this Greenwood team at the top of the list that he's played since 2002.
"They've had a great year," Bolding said. "They're solid in every phase of the game. They're good at stopping the run, and they can pass and run the football. We've played them six times since 2002, and this is the best I've seen them."
Looking at the Bulldogs on paper, it's hard to miss their senior quarterback Conor Noland, who is committed to the Arkansas Razorbacks as a dual-sport athlete. Noland has passed for 2,494 yards, 31 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Zebra defense had to line up against a highly talented quarterback in Searcy's Mason Shucker last week, but according to Bolding, Noland is a totally different type of cover.
"The difference between the two is Shucker has got tremendous arm strength, but Noland is more mobile," Bolding said. "He can present issues for you when he gets out of the pocket. We were able to scheme accordingly last week, and you have to do things different with a dual guy."
Noland is well protected by a group of upperclassmen offensive lineman led by senior all-conference center Noah Sexton.
"They seem to be good in the offensive line every year," Bolding said. "They have a lot of experience and they're big."
Greenwood senior running back Kenny Wood has handled the workload out of their predominantly one-back system. Wood has carried the ball 234 times for 1,617 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns. Through the air, Noland's go-to-guy has been junior Peyton Holt, who has hauled in 87 catches for 1,154 yards and 15 touchdowns.
From looking at their offense, Bolding notices a few wrinkles that they've been able to add, and he credits that to their experience.
"They're pretty balanced," Bolding said. "They have a few add-ons that they haven't done in the past and that's probably because they're so experienced."
The Zebra defense has carried the torch for this team since day one of the season. Limiting the Bulldogs may be their toughest task yet, but Bolding has gotten across to them what it'll take to win this game.
"We've got to figure out how to make them one dimensional," Bolding said. "We have to get them in second and long and win some first downs. We have to tackle that running back. We have to be disciplined with our eyes in the secondary, and the linebackers are going to have to get involved."
On the other hand, the Greenwood defense hasn't given up much at all. It's a fact that they graduated some of there top defenders from last season, but they replenished and have been dominant throughout the season.
"They're real good up front and it's hard to run the ball on them," Bolding said. "They are a read and react defense just like ours. They're very disciplined and they will bend a little bit to not get the ball thrown over their heads."
Pine Bluff sophomore quarterback Tyler Foots will play in the biggest game of his high school career. When speaking of Foots, Bolding highlighted his even-keeled demeanor, and he even threw out a comparison to one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in the SEC, Jalen Hurts.
Without the gradual growth in the play of the offensive line, the protection for Foots wouldn't be there. After shifting guys around, in and out of the offensive line unit, they've finally seemed to find solidarity.
"He's been able to be successful because of our O-line," Bolding said. "We had to piece things together, and we tried to keep things real simple early. We had to let the O-line mature and we've always felt that we'll only be as good as they are. As the year went along we added more and more to the offense. Tyler is smart, he's picked up on everything, and he's a real hard worker. He reminds me of Alabama's Hurts. His demeanor never changes whether he makes a good or a bad play, he never changes."
Heading into tonight's game, it's business as usual for Bolding and the Zebras.
"You don't change anything because it's a state game," Bolding said. "You got a routine and you stay with it. You want them to relax. We're going to go about this the same way we would last Friday, and the first game of the season."