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Bryant’s ring cycle goes on: 5 and counting

OPINION by Bob Wisener | December 5, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Bryant High School's football bandwagon has become as large as singer Taylor Swift's number of Twitter followers.

That comes with winning -- abetted by repeated exposure in central Arkansas. The Hornets, if you haven't noticed, played two more games in War Memorial Stadium this season than the Arkansas Razorbacks. Count those as bookend victories for the state's newest force in prep football.

Bryant starts every season against Benton in the Salt Bowl -- it may be a nonexistent rivalry from a competitive standpoint, but try telling Saline County people that -- and a return WMS visit in December for the Class 7A championship game.

Coach Buck James, with a state title while at Camden Fairview, achieved something in 2022 that eluded Gus Malzahn, Barry Lunney Jr. and any other Arkansas prep football coach. That is, win five straight state championships. James, for whom a 2-for-17 horse that beat around Oaklawn and some other tracks was named, has become Wilson Matthews for a generation that does not remember the Little Rock Central coach of the 1950s.

Think about it: Dynasty status comes to a program with the barest of portfolios for many years. The Hornets capped a 12-0 season Friday night with a 36-7 decision over Bentonville. Bryant trailed 7-0 early but won with room to spare, unlike the 42-38 scare from Fayetteville last year. The Hornets' first three title teams beat conference rival North Little Rock, 27-7 in 2018 (following a regular-season loss to the Charging Wildcats), 21-7 in 2019 and 27-17 in 2020.

Bryant is 37-1 the last three years, its most recent loss coming in 2021 (24-21) at Longview, Texas. The Hornets have won the Salt Bowl eight straight years since a 14-14 tie with Benton in 2014. Benton, by contrast, has gone without a state title in football since 1977, though the 2022 Panthers played Greenwood close in the 6A semifinals.

James, whose development of players (and assembling a coaching staff) is said to be A-1 in Arkansas high schools, took advantage of a perfect storm at Bryant. A population shift in what TV guys call "Metro" leveled football programs at certain Little Rock public schools while those at Bryant and Cabot, to name two, accelerated quickly.

Central High, once the flagship school in Little Rock, its national significance well documented, has skidded terribly on football Fridays. Hall High dropped briefly to 8-man football, and Fair and McClellan merged into Southwest, so far with little impact.

Still, things are looking up in the capital city. Besides Bryant, Pulaski Academy repeated as state champion, adding the 6A title to last year's 5A crown. That's back-to-back plaques for coach Anthony Lucas at the dynasty built by Glenwood native Kevin Kelley. The Bruins' class showed in playoff wins at WMS over Catholic High, the Rockets' only defeat, and Greenwood.

Parkview, a football giant long ago under Sam Goodwin, beat Shiloh Christian in the 5A final, the Patriots dropping from 6A and the Saints rising from 4A. Call it a collective triumph for the Bolding brothers, head coach Brad (first state title since an assistant at Greenwood in 2000) and assistant Buzz.

Bryant went where no Arkansas football team has gone since playoffs came along in 1969. Once within a basketball enclave, the football team off Exit 123 (Interstate 30) impresses upon every viewing.

Looked at another way, Bryant has become the Dallas Highland Park, the Shreveport Evangel Christian, the Tulsa Washington of Arkansas prep football. James, like Lucas at PA, coaches that rare Arkansas team that might compete strongly out of state. That Bryant won 37 games the last three years against in-state teams simply astounds.

Ask the schools who no longer play the Hornets -- none from Garland County, for instance, since Lake Hamilton in 2012.

Athletic directors schedule games with a number of risk-and-reward factors at play, not the least of which is one's own team winning. This can create some timid early-season matchups, often involving teams nowhere close to War Memorial Stadium in December. Like Bank OZK Arena in Hot Springs for prep basketball, that's where champions hang out.

Whether Central, Hall, the Fort Smith schools (Northside and Southside) or others like Pine Bluff and Texarkana regain past glories is a question for another day. As for not scheduling Bryant in football, Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry himself, touched upon that in one of his movies: "A man," he said, "has to know his limitations."

Print Headline: Bryant’s ring cycle goes on: 5 and counting


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