By Conor O'Neill
By Conor O’Neill
OF THE COMMERCIAL STAFF
When the Pine Bluff Zebras travel to Searcy to play the Lions in Friday night’s 6A state football quarterfinal, the Zebras will do so with heavy hearts.
They’ll also have in mind what coach Bobby Bolding tells his players about the role of football.
“You can come in here, you can go to football practice for a few hours and get away from all the world’s troubles,” Bolding said. “I tell them, ‘Whatever went on that day, when you walk out on the field for practice, you can go out there and relax and have fun for a couple hours.’”
Walter Ashley Jr., father of junior running back Walter Ashley III, was shot to death early Sunday morning. As of a Tuesday interview with Bolding, it was still undetermined if Ashley would even suit up for the Zebras.
The team has offered its condolences and support to not only their teammate but the entire Ashley family.
As what applies to practice also applies to the game, Pine Bluff (7-4) has a tough task against Searcy. The No. 2 seed out of the East (who were third in the actual 7A/6A-East Conference), the Lions (9-2) present a multitude of problems for the Zebras, starting with their offense.
“The key for us this week is defensively, we’ve got to be disciplined with our eyes and be where we’re supposed to be,” Bolding said. “They’ve got some good skill guys as well, so there are going to be some situations where we’re going to have to make one-on-one tackles.”
When comparing Searcy’s offense to each team Pine Bluff has played so far this year, Bolding said the closest comparison would be to Lake Hamilton. On paper, that doesn’t bode well for Pine Bluff, as the Wolves beat the Zebras 56-21 and scored eight touchdowns in eight possessions on Oct. 7.
Searcy’s offense starts with senior quarterback Dezmond Stegall, a three-year starter whom Bolding said is the complete package at the position. Stegall has passed for more than 2,600 yards this season and has a 26-4 touchdown-interception ratio.
The Lions also have an effective rushing attack, led by junior running backs Antwon Arnold and Cam Woodruff. Those two have combined for more than 2,300 rushing yards this season.
Pine Bluff counters the Searcy attack with a defense that seems to have improved in every game since the game against Lake Hamilton. Last week against Van Buren, the unit held the Pointers scoreless and to just 106 yards in the second half.
The week before, in a 21-14 loss to El Dorado, the Zebras held the Wildcats to their lowest point total of the season and just 211 yards of total offense. In the two games leading up to the game against El Dorado, Pine Bluff surrendered 12 points combined.
Offensively for Pine Bluff, Ashley would be missed if he did not play. The junior has racked up more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns this year and has been electric in the return game also.
But the Zebras’ attack is far from a one-man show. Senior quarterback Jordan Humphrey completed 5 of 6 pass attempts against Van Buren for 145 yards and two touchdowns. That completion rate is his highest of the season.
Seniors Jalen Dabner and Lemmie Daniels have also proven to be able to carry the load, as they combined for 27 carries, 175 yards and three touchdowns last week.
The story for Pine Bluff’s offense, according to Bolding, will be avoiding turnovers that have haunted them in three of the team’s four losses.
“The big for us all year has been taking care of the football,” Bolding said. “We took care of the football (against Van Buren), and if we do that, we’ve got a chance to score on every possession. We’re going to have the opportunity (to score) because we’re going to get first downs and we’re going to move the ball typically.”
Class 6A quarterfinal
Pine Bluff (7-4) at Searcy (9-2)
• 7:30 p.m. Friday
• Seeds: Pine Bluff third in South; Searcy second in East (finished third in 7A/6A-East Conference)
• Last week: Pine Bluff def. Van Buren 41-14; Searcy def. Little Rock McClellan 41-14
• Winner plays Sheridan or Lake Hamilton
Other area playoff games
• Class 6A: Sheridan at Lake Hamilton
• Class 5A: Hot Springs Lakeside at White Hall
• Class 4A: Clarksville at McGehee; Dollarway at Stuttgart; Gravette at Warren
• Class 3A: Fordyce at Charleston; Glen Rose at Rison