Playoff football returns to Heber Springs tonight as the Panthers prepare to take on the Shiloh Christian Saints in the second round of the 4A state tournament.
Heber Springs (6-4, 6-1) overcame a slow start to the season to finish on a 6-1 run, winning the 4-2A conference championship outright and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Shiloh Christian (9-2, 5-2) finished third in its conference and won its first-round matchup against Crossett in dominating fashion, 43-7, last week. Shiloh's two losses come to No. 1-ranked Prairie Grove, who finished as state runners-up last season, and No. 5 Pea Ridge, who lost in the semifinals in 2015.
The Saints are one of the most tradition-rich programs in 4A football with seven total state championships. Shiloh Christian is perhaps best known as the school where current Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn made a name for himself. Malzahn and the Saints popularized the 'Hurry-Up, No Huddle' offense that's now a staple at schools across the country.
The Panthers enter tonight's game as the underdogs in the eyes of many, but Heber Springs head coach Darren Gowen says his team embraces that role.
“You can look around at all the publications, Hootens and different things like that, and we're the underdogs, but we like to be the underdogs,” said Gowen, “All I can say is I know my kids, I know this team, and we're going to go out there and play as hard as we can.”
“It's the game of football. It's not played on paper. It's not played with predictions. I know that we have about 50 guys in that locker room who expect to be playing next week as well.”
Heber Springs holds a 2-0 record all-time against Shiloh Christian, with both wins coming during the 2011 season. The Panthers beat the Saints in the Hooten's Kickoff Classic at Razorback Stadium and again in the first round of the playoffs that year.
“That's one thing I told the kids, that Shiloh's never beaten us and there's not a lot of schools that can say that,” the Panthers' head coach said with a smile. “Our kids are eager and ready to play, because it is a tradition-rich school and it's going to be a great atmosphere.”
Gowen said limiting Saints' senior quarterback Connor Reece will be key to repeating that success tonight.
“Offensively, they're big up front. They've got a senior quarterback that's been a three-year starter who runs it well, and he's only thrown four interceptions on the season, so we've got our work cut out for us,” said Gowen. “But we've put in a plan we think is going to work, and the kids have been executing it in practice, so hopefully we'll be able to get some stops and move the ball on them.”
Reece has thrown for 2497 yards, 28 touchdowns, and four interceptions so far this season, adding an additional 554 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Reece ended last week's game against Crossett 20 of 28 for 275 yards and three touchdowns.
Heber Springs will again be without its own starting quarterback, injured junior Brandon Loethen who's out with an ankle injury. Freshman quarterback Adam Martin, who led the team to a 28-21 win over Helena-West Helena in the regular season finale, will start again tonight.
“For the last three weeks, he's practiced incredibly. I think the kids have a lot of confidence in him,” said Gowen. “The biggest thing is he's calm and cool. He doesn't get in a hurry and he understands the game. He's a ninth-grader, but he's a leader in the huddle. If someone's lined up wrong, he's going to get them fixed.”
Heber Springs and Shiloh Christian kick off tonight at 7 p.m. at Panther Stadium. Tickets will be priced at $6 at the gate.