I wrote the following for the November 2013 issue of Arkansas Life magazine:
While his friends celebrated around him, Javier Carbonell emerged from a pile of bodies, staggered to the sideline of Bentonville High’s football field and collapsed. The junior defensive end had just suffered a blow to the Adam’s apple and a stinger to his leg after throwing his 259 pounds into an offensive line as big as some Division I colleges’. The sacrifice, he reasoned, was worth it. The opponent, one of the best prep teams in the nation, had driven deep into Bentonville territory in the fourth quarter and was looking for the kill shot. It was only an early season, non-conference game, but as both sides approached for a pivotal fourth down-and-one play, far more was on the line than a single win or loss. With seven minutes left in a showdown with a Texas powerhouse, Carbonell and his teammates were carrying the hopes of a state on their shoulders.
Fifteen years ago, this would have been unimaginable.
In the 1990s, Benton County was booming economically but not yet on the football field. Northwest Arkansas-based Fortune 500 businesses like Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson were then already setting into motion forces that would turn the county into the state’s second most populous and boost Bentonville’s median household income from $40,000 (in 2000) to a projected $63,000 by 2015. Football, like other sports, benefited from a rapidly expanding talent pool, top-notch salaries and the construction of state-of-the-art facilities.
Bentonville High is Exhibit A here: In the early 1990s, it had about 750 students, the smallest enrollment of all schools in the state’s largest classification. It has since added ninth grade and this fall is the state’s largest school with more than 4,100 students. In the early 2000s, Bentonville had the worst athletic facilities in its conference. But the last decade has seen a new $9 million stadium and field house complex, as well as the 2005 hiring of one of the most accomplished head coaches around. To get Barry Lunney, Sr., Bentonville approved a salary of $89,000—$14,000 more than Lunney had made at his previous job at Fort Smith Southside—plus another $240,000 or so for four assistant coaches he planned to bring with him.
The investment paid off: Heading into this season, Bentonville had won two state championships since 2008, played in three straight title games and had a 35-game regular season winning streak. “I feel like our program is as good as any program out there,” Bentonville athletic director Scott Passmore said this summer.
“Out there” no longer means other parts of the state. In recent years, Bentonville’s football program has been so good it’s had trouble finding in-state opponents for early-season games. The program, like all other big schools, must stay in state during conference play and post-season but is free to choose its own opponents for the early-season, non-conference games. Scheduling willing in-state opponents has gotten progressively harder, so Bentonville has started looking across state borders at programs in a similar predicament. In recent seasons, the Tigers have played and knocked off elite teams from Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The wins bolstered their national cred and helped Bentonville make appearances in national top 100 prep football polls run by recruiting services.
But Bentonville isn’t yet considered a national prep power. It broadcasts its games on an ESPN-affiliated radio station but hasn’t yet brought ESPN cameras to town. To prove itself worthy of the limelight, it has needed one last accolade: a win over a top team from Texas, America’s football mecca. The best Texas teams are universally hailed as also being the best in America. This has also played out at the college level, where the best Arkansas teams have had some success in defeating Texan counterparts. The Arkansas Razorbacks beat their fierce rival, the Texas Longhorns, with regularity in the 1950s and 1960s and as recently as 2003.
Bentonville assistant coach Tony Cherico knows. He was an All-American noseguard for the Arkansas Razorbacks in the mid 1980s. “When I played, everyone circled Texas—that was it. Texas was a big game,” he says. “It was for all the marbles.”
But this rivalry has not gone nearly as well for top Arkansas teams versus top Texas teams at the prep ranks. Granted, Pine Bluff High handled business against any and all comers (including Texans) in the 1920s, as did Little Rock Central High in the 1950s, but no recent Arkansas prep program has achieved the national prestige of those schools. In 2010, Springdale’s Shiloh Christian—then ranked No. 22 nationally by MaxPreps—had a shot against Euless Trinity, then ranked No. 1, in Arlington, Texas. Shiloh lost 80-26. In 2012, North Little Rock High—one of the best three programs in the state that season—traveled to Texas to take on Longview High. It lost 30-14.
Not long afterward, Scott Passmore filled in an open date for the third game of the 2013 season by scheduling a home game with Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. The school of 2,300 midway between Dallas and Fort Worth has earned a reputation as one the most physically dominant programs in Texas’ highest classification. The Trinity Trojans used a ferocious ground game often employing 10-plus running backs to win three state titles in 2005-2009 and finish as runner-up in 2011.
“Certainly, when those guys get on a roll, they can beat anybody very badly,” Coach Lunney said in August.
Bentonville is a big, strong and well-coached team. Problem is, Euless is also well-coached, but bigger and stronger. Against Arkansas teams, Bentonville usually has the biggest linemen. Euless, which is stocked with 300 pound plus players, has linemen which outweigh their Bentonville counterparts by an average of 20-30 pounds. Moreover, Euless is loaded with future high Division I players. Bentonville doesn’t have the same firepower in terms of sheer future major college players. It has one major college commit in its senior class.
September 20, 2013
It’s a quarter to 7:00 p.m. in the middle of Tiger Fieldhouse, the high school band’s threatening to rock the metal siding off this place, and all those rankings and statistics mentioned above? Doesn’t matter here.
Bentonville football is ready to make its mark at a national level, and Tiger players who have gathered in a semi-circle on the edge of a half field of artificial turf are focused on the task at hand. The steady roar of 3,500 Bentonville fans outside conveys this game’s importance just as much as the words of Lunney and his nine assistant coaches.
“This is a chance to represent the state of Arkansas,” Bentonville defensive coordinator Jody Grant says, his voice rising with every syllable. “Let’s show these people what they came out here to see and let’s work these jokers over.”
Cheers erupt. The band pounds its drums.
Next to speak is Lunney. Nearly 100 players gather around him, drop to their knees and clasp hands. Lunney spends 42 seconds praying for the safety of all participants during the game and for the safety of their opponents who later that night will make a six-hour bus trip to Euless.
Then Lunney launches into a sermon on the game’s fundamentals: avoid penalties, take advantage of turnovers, play aggressive. It’s the same gospel this Fort Smith native has been preaching throughout his 27 years of head coaching that have brought six state titles and three runner-up finishes.
Lunney tells his players to hustle as hard as previous Bentonville teams. He reminds them of his first Bentonville team: “They fought for 48 minutes regardless, and we got down by some big scores that year,” he recalls. Then Lunney looks at senior Clay Wallace. “Your brother was a part of that, you know that.” Pause. “I don’t know if you know or not. You were so little,” he adds, smiling.
Lunney wraps by emphasizing the importance of the kicking game. One in every five plays is either part of kickoff, field goal or punt attempt, he says. These plays are not time for rest. “We must, we must, we must win the kicking game,” he says. “We’re gonna press it. We’re gonna press it. We’re gonna press it right from the start.”
From the kickoff, Bentonville presses it. Instead of booming the ball downfield, Tiger kicker Bennett Moehring softly squib kicks the ball to the side and his teammate Clay Wallace grabs it. Right away, tailback Dylan Smith rips a 10-yard run, but Euless’ defense then stiffens. A two-yard run, two incompletions and Bentonville drives no farther than Euless’ 21-yard-line. The ensuing field goal misses. In their first eight plays, Euless reels off runs of six yards and two yards but stout play by linebacker Clay Wallace helps force a punt from the Bentonville 42-yard line.
The game stays deadlocked at 0-0 till midway through the second quarter, when Bentonville starts rolling. From the Euless 40-yard-line, quarterback Kasey Ford completes a short pass to junior Cody Scroggins, who spins and fights through three tackles to pick up about 15 yards. The play sparks plenty high fives on the Tiger sideline. Although most of the Euless defenders are bigger and stronger than their Bentonville counterparts, here was a 5’11”, 155-pound wide receiver that didn’t care one bit. (“Man, that guy—he’s tougher than a two-dollar steak,” Lunney will say later on Bentonville’s weekly football show.) Soon after Scroggins’ play, tailback Hekili Keliiliki punches it in from a yard away to put the Tigers up 7-0.
On the next possession, a series of penalties buries Euless in a first down and 42-yard hole. Then, on the next play, a Tiger yanks on a Trojan face mask. Now, it’s first down and 32 yards, and things start unraveling for Bentonville. No longer can the Tigers pressure Euless’ quarterback. The Trojan ground game heats up, and Euless scores on a 2-yard run with 14 seconds left after Tiger defensive linemen miscommunicate. End Javier Carbonell said he thought his coaches called a play asking him to roll out, but they had actually asked him to step into the very gap through which Euless would score.
At halftime, in the fieldhouse, the players gather by position. Senior Jimmie Jackson, a starting wide receiver who’s sitting out this game because of a strained hamstring, walks by his teammates, giving them high fives. Offensive coordinator Aaron Danenhauer believes if his guys just keep pressing, the Trojans will crumble. “They’re looking for a reason to quit, you hear me?” he says. “We got to keep hammering up front. Hammer, hammer, hammer is what we do. You hear me?”
Lunney then addresses the team, praising their effort but cautioning them to cut out the penalties—especially the extraneous jawing. “Play the game where your pad levels do the talking,” he says. Lunney peers down on his charges with unwavering dark eyes. A thin man, he sips water from a half full Ozarka bottle as he paces back and forth, lecturing on the virtues of sound blocking, tackling and all-out hustle. Then, as game time approaches and the fans outside chant louder, Lunney starts stoking fires. He assures his players that their most dynamic offensive threat so far, Cody Scroggins, is bound to return a punt for a touchdown if given the chance. That a momentum-swinging special teams play is never far from those who play hard and smart. “Let’s go have fun, let’s rip!” Lunney says. “Do you understand how many people get to play in games like this?”
Unfortunately for the home crowd, Euless also comes out rocking early in the third quarter. At the 8:27 mark, on a third down and two, Euless running back Ja’Ron Wilson blasts through a gap in the middle of Bentonville’s defense and streaks 35 yards to the end zone to put Euless up 14-7. Bentonville answers with a big play of its own when Ford heaves a 40-yard pass to Scroggins, who had gotten open behind the Euless defense. Scroggins pulls in the ball at Euless’ 34-yard line and takes off down the sideline for what would be a touchdown against many Arkansas teams. But Euless’ 6-foot-1, 198-pound cornerback catches Scroggins from behind at the nine-yard line. From there, Euless’ larger defenders again stifle Bentonville and force a field goal.
After the ball sails through the uprights, the scoreboard flashes “14-10” alongside a patchwork of advertisements for local businesses. Like in many towns across Arkansas, advertising revenue helps fund the snazzy equipment and pre-season tournament trips which help give prep programs an edge. But Bentonville has an edge other Arkansas towns don’t have: It is home to the world’s largest retailer. The two largest ads on the Tigers’ scoreboard belong to Wal-Mart and its subsidiary Sam’s Club.
Sam Walton moved to Bentonville in 1950 to set up a general store that 12 years later spawned the first Walmart discount store. By 2002, his vision had evolved into a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. grossing $219.81 billion in revenue and outpacing ExxonMobil as the world’s largest company in terms of sales. The company’s headquarters remained in Bentonville, which had profound ripple effects on the surrounding community. Change accelerated in the 1990s and early 2000s when vendor companies moved en masse to the area to the open facilities and sell directly to Walmart. This flood of businesses triggered yet more business in the service sector while also adding momentum to a burgeoning arts and culture scene.
Just as new wealth has transformed Northwest Arkansas, so did an influx of oil money transform Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth in the 20th century, setting into motion a confluence of forces which made those metro areas into the football hotbeds they are today. Texas towns have long had rabid local interest, a superabundance of skilled coaches and players and enough wealth to invest in maximizing the development of those coaches and players. Northwest Arkansas also has that first ingredient, and it’s quickly getting the second and third. Bentonville High, for instance, sells advertising packages up to $15,000 and booster club membership packages up to $6,600. In one of the nation’s poorest states, the schools of Northwest Arkansas have become the Joneses the rest of the state can’t keep up with.
Bentonville is still keeping up with Euless as the fourth quarter gets underway, but the Trojans threaten to pull away. Euless has the ball at Bentonville’s 31-yard-line with three yards to cover on third down. They only get two yards, though, and Euless’ coaches decide to go for it. A field goal would only put them up by seven points, but a touchdown makes it a two-score game. So, Euless goes for the jugular, setting up the night’s biggest play so far. As Bentonville’s defensive linemen get into their stances, one of their teammates on the sideline turns toward to the fans and raises his arms. “Let’s go!” Jacob Kelley yells. “Get up!”
Euless hands the ball off to Ja’Ron Wilson, who smashes into a line of Tigers. Neither side gives way, Wilson fumbles and Bentonville linebacker Harrison Rooney emerges from the
resulting scrum. He holds the ball high as the crowd thunders its approval for this Friday night Caesar. Meanwhile, Carbonell screams, limps to the sideline and falls on to his back. As he writhes in pain, Bentonville’s sophomore quarterback Kasey Ford leads the offense to the field, making his first varsity start against what may end up being the toughest defense he’ll face in his prep career. The talented but inexperienced 6-foot-5 teen had thrown two interceptions in the first half but here is a shot at redemption, a chance to fast track Bentonville’s star of tomorrow to its hero of today. On the first play, though, Ford’s pass sails into the hands of a defensive back. Groans everywhere. For Ford, these were tough lessons, but ones that ultimately would help him rise. Carbonnel, too, gets up. Within seconds of the interception, he pops up and starts limp/running back on to the field to keep fighting against the 6’5”, 300-pound Oklahoma State commit he’d been lining up against all night. “It was really tough to breathe,” he says, “but I had to suck it up.”
Euless then reels off six straight run plays for positive yards. The Trojans would finish the game with 261 rushing yards compared to the Tigers’ 15 rushing yards. Their superior size and mounting Bentonville injuries were clearly taking a toll. But the nail, unexpectedly, doesn’t come by ground. At the Bentonville seven-yard line, Euless quarterback Christian Hammack fakes a handoff, rolls to his left and finds a wide open receiver in the endzone. The Tiger defenders had been swarming to stop a run but their misdirected hustle led to a 21-10 deficit. The pass attempt was only Hammack’s second of the game.
With Bentonville now down by two scores with 2:55 left, some fans start heading for their cars. The Tigers keep them standing around the exits by driving to the Trojans’ five-yard line but can’t muster more than a field goal. Then Euless gobbles up an onside kick and the game’s essentially over with 56 seconds left. Final score: 21-13.
No players hold back tears as the teams meet at a midfield. What they had, they gave in the game. A few opposing players exchange hugs and each side goes its own way. The Trojans celebrate with their fans and the Tigers make their way through the cool, clear night back to the fieldhouse. The coaches there remind them that this game, like the other non-conference games, served its purpose as a tune up for the regular season gauntlet.
“When you play good talent, well-coached football teams—programs that are tradition-rich and have a history of going forward in playoffs in their respective states—they’ll exposure you,” Lunney says. “You’ll find your weaknesses in a hurry, but you’ll also see your strengths.”
There were some obvious weaknesses tonight, but they are surmountable. More experience among the team’s younger players will go a long way in preventing future interceptions and occasional lapses in communication. There were undeniable signs of strength, too. What Bentonville coaches, along with football fans across the state, had wanted to know is if a Texas titan would again cut an Arkansas Goliath down to size. They wanted to know how players like Javier Carbonell would respond to the most overpowering ground game they have ever seen.
The answer? Well. No, not well enough to send shockwaves across the nation, but well enough for a group of Arkansans to limp off a field, heads held high.
To see the original article, with pictures not shown here, visit arkansaslife.com here.