Pulaski Academy football coach Kevin Kelley doesn’t like his players to wait around long before a game.
To Kelley, extra time on the field doesn’t help his kids play better. In fact, it can make the experience less enjoyable. “Most teams warm up for an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes before a game,” he says. “We try to get to games 25 minutes before kickoff because we don’t want our kids sitting and getting stressed out and things like that.”
Instead, he tries to take his players minds off the game at hand. They’ll grab a bite to eat, or catch a movie. Which was the idea a couple weeks ago before Pulaski Academy’s state playoff semifinal at its west Little Rock campus. The Bruins planned to see Immortals, a rah-rah take on a bloodthirsty army’s quest in mythic ancient Greece. Instead, because of a time mix-up, they got part one of The Twlight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
“We thought Twilight was going to be all about vampires, and it turned out to be a love story,” Kelley recalls. “That was a miserable movie for teenage boys to see. They all hated it. But we had fun talking about it, so it worked.”
A lot has worked for Pulaski Academy this fall.
In the semifinal, the Bruins beat Pine Bluff Dollarway 51-32. On Saturday, the Bruins (14-0) won the 4A state title by defeating Malvern 63-28. In both games, the Bruins didn’t wait long to strike, outscoring their competition by a total of 87-13 in the first halves.
It’s pretty much been this way all year, as the Bruins established themselves as one of the most explosive offenses in state history. [see graphic at bottom] Some believe this team is the state’s best overall, despite having thousands fewer students than the state’s largest high schools. Pulaski Academy played in the state’s fourth-largest of six classifications, each based on the size of enrollment.
This season, P.A.’s two top rivals for this distinction are Fayetteville, the 7A champion, and Greenwood, the 5A champion. Pulaski Academy outscored Fayetteville in a preseason scrimmage, ringing up 56 points in three quarters.
Greenwood also went undefeated, but P.A.’s strongest opponents were superior to Greenwood’s. P.A.’s “closest” win was a 38-28 victory over eventual 6A runner-up Lake Hamilton. Greenwood, meanwhile, had two closer calls – a 23-20 win over Alma and a 34-31 win over Camden Fairview.
Kelley says winning a title was the main goal all along. He also wanted to finish undefeated for the first time in school history. He has put stock in overall state rankings only so far as they motivate his players. “It matters to me because it matters to the kids,” he says. “They had never mentioned overall rankings until somebody ranked us number two earlier in the year and then they started saying ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we got to be the first [P.A.] team to be ranked #1 overall?’” That possibility became much stronger on Dec. 3, when Fayetteville beat then-No. 1 Bentonville.
Arkansas Activities Association forbids this debate from being officially settled on the field. Still, just for fun, Kelley has tossed around the idea of an overall state championship playoffs with his coaches. This hypothetical tourney, up to six teams, wouldn’t necessarily occur each year. Kelley’s ideas for it are fluid, but he gives the 7A a competitive edge. Here are some possible stipulations:
1. The 7A state champion gets an automatic bid into the overall state playoffs
2. Non-7A teams qualify only by b) winning their classification’s state title and b) not losing against in-state teams
3. Participation is voluntary.
“The most you could have is one team out of 7A, one out of 6A, one out of 5A, 4A, 3A and 2A. The odds of having that many undefeated state champions are slim and then your 2A and 3A might not even want to do it,” Kelley adds.
“You want everybody to be happy at the end of their year and I think that’s why the A.A.A. ended the overall state playoffs. I was told that people were winning state championships and then they were losing in the overalls,” which meant champions’ seasons were ending on sour notes.
Nobody knows who would win a best overall tourney between this year’s contenders, but that the issue is provoked at all hints at how special P.A.’s season has been. Yes, Kelley’s methods are unconventional. Sure, his team may have seven future Division I signees on it. But there’s a reason Kelley didn’t need to that extra hour preparing before kickoffs – he’d already demanded plenty extra hours of work in the days, weeks and months before, and his players never stopped answering the call.
“As talented as these kids are, they’re better human beings,” he says. “I’ve been coaching for 19 years and this year’s group is the best I’ve ever had.”
Pulaski Academy Bruins’ score by quarters (14 games)
– For the season, P.A. averaged 51.5 points and 536.5 yards a game. Opponents averaged 21.7 points and 211.7 yards.
– Bruins starters played in fourth quarter just twice
– In approximately the last 10 games of the season, P.A. scored touchdowns on 63 of 69 possessions
– numbers according to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
This piece is slated to publish in Sync magazine