It was a frantic, exciting finish, but it was North Little Rock that hung on for the 44-37 win to beat Bentonville in the Class 7A state championship game at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
“I've been in some good games over the years,” North Little Rock coach Jamie Mitchell said. “But I wouldn't trade this feeling for all the money in the world.”
North Little Rock ends the season 13-0 and with the school's first state championship since the modern era of football playoffs began in the early 1970s.
It was also the first title for a team from central Arkansas since Little Rock Central won in 2004. Until Saturday, northwest Arkansas had won the last 12 state championships.
Key to the game was sophomore running back Brandon Thomas, who was named the game's most valuable player, after rushing for 199 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
“It means a lot for us,” Thomas said of winning for central Arkansas. “I wanted to work hard for our seniors and I knew it was their last game.”
North Little Rock played for a state title last season as well, but came up short to Fayetteville.
“Last year was tough,” Thomas said. “We worked hard all year just to get here and I'm so happy, I don't know what to say, I'm just happy.”
It was a big play that put Bentonville away.
“It was Mister Post, 52 max,” senior quarterback David Chapple said of the 68 yard pass to Aaron Griffin that gave North Little Rock the 37-30 lead they wouldn't relinquish. “We had it earlier, but I threw a bad pass and it was intercepted. But this was open and Aaron just took it in.”
As a team, North Little Rock rushed for 383 yards and Chapple said that was by design,” we are a running team, that's who we are.”
North Little Rock scored five touchdowns on the ground, with Thomas accounting for two, while Oscar Adaway, Tyler Day and Chapple each had one.
Adaway also accounted for a key two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter, and it was Day's run with 2:22 remaining that put the game away.
Down 14, Bentonville wasn't finished.
The Tigers, with starting quarterback Nathan Lyons on the bench because of an injury, backup Tyler Johnson Easton Hughes for the score with 1:10 remaining.
Bentonville followed with the onside kick that they recovered and the Tigers were in business but with no timeouts with 15 seconds remaining.
The Tigers drove to the 10 yard line and with two seconds on the clock, Johnson spiked the snap but the clock ran out and that set off a wild celebration on the North Little Rock sideline and former North Little Rock running back Alex Day, now playing at Arkansas Monticello, held Mitchell as his former teammates dumped a cooler full of water and ice on their coach.
They didn't notice that the officials were conferring and Bentonville coach Jody Grant was making his case that a second should be put back on the clock.
Mitchell noticed though and he went sprinting, completely soaked, towards the officials making his own case.
After some deliberation, the officials ruled that the clock was correct and the game was over.
North Little Rock won the state championship and the celebration resumed.