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Izard County Consolidated, Rector meet for third time in 8-man state championship game Thursday night

The teams split two games in the regular season

By Kyle Sutherland  

Two teams who know each other very well will play for the ultimate prize in a rubber match when Izard County Consolidated and Rector kick off at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Thursday night at 7 p.m. in the 8-Man sanctioned state championship game.  

The North Division foes first met in Week 3 as Rector earned a 34-28 win in a contest that was deemed a non-conference game, while ICC thumped Rector two weeks later 38-8. 

Rector has competed in the 8-Man ranks since dropping down from 11-Man prior to the 2020 season, while Izard County is one win away from the pinnacle in the program’s first season of football after claiming the North conference crown.

Izard County (8-2) began the year 1-2 with one of those losses to eventual 8-Man club champion Mountain View 46-20 in Week 0, the other being the aforementioned Week 3 loss to Rector. They haven’t lost since, rattling off seven straight victories.

Jared Johnson was selected as ICC’s first football coach in January and serves as the fall sports coordinator and softball coach. The team’s success hasn’t surprised him based on what his players have accomplished in other sports.

“This team is composed of 13 seniors, and these kids have had success in football, baseball and have been on the big stage before,” Johnson said. “They just want to win for each other, and they work as hard as any group I have ever coached.”

One advantage that ICC has had over the rest of the field in the 8-Man sanctioned ranks is the ability to pass the ball with great success which has led to averaging 40 points per game - 47 during the seven-game win streak.

Sophomore Wyatt Buchanan has not played like an underclassman and has shown great poise all season completing 97-of-146 passes (66%) for 1,602 yards and 24 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

“Wyatt can throw the football, there is no mistake about that,” Johnson said. “He is a sophomore, but he is a big, strong kid and we also have a few key receivers that he has the confidence to throw it to.”

Of the receivers, Malachi Cruz leads that group with 51 catches for 600 yards and 8 touchdowns, followed by Tyler Hill who has 21 receptions for 506 yards and 6 touchdowns. Dakota Townsley (3 touchdowns) and Jesse Warden (2 touchdowns) have also contributed.

The Buchanan-to-Cruz connection came up huge in the semifinals in what was a shootout with Woodlawn as it came down to the final play of the game with the season on the line.

Buchanan took the snap at the ICC 26-yard line and after a couple of seconds rolled right, directed traffic, and threw up a prayer that Cruz jumped up and snagged over multiple Woodlawn defenders to give ICC a 62-56 victory.

“We were in the lead most of the game but later on they were able to come back,” Johnson said. “It pretty much just came down to whoever had the ball last and the finish to that game was unlike any I have ever been a part of. We had the ball and were able to hold the clock off and make sure we did not leave any time on it so we could have our last shot and it worked out.”

As well as they have done through the air, ICC has also been very productive on the ground with a pair of 500-plus yard rushers led by Noah Stevenson who has carried 114 times for 635 yards and 11 touchdowns. Cruz is behind him with 60 carries for 501 yards and 9 scores.

Defensively, ICC has surrendered 22 points per game with Cruz also a major part of that side of the ball as he has collected 69 tackles (33 solo), 5 for loss, with an interception and fumble recovery, along with Garrett Roberts (57 tackles, 23 solo, 2 for loss) as the team’s leading tacklers. Jesse Warden leads the Cougars in forced fumbles with five, while Tyler Hill leads ICC with 3 interceptions. Xander McCandlis has been a big part of the defensive unit but is out with a season-ending arm injury.

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Rector head coach Dave Hendrix hopes to lead his alma mater to a crown in its first title game appearance after a semifinal finish last season when his team fell to Mountain Pine 50-18. Rector (8-2) sought revenge as it met the Red Devils in the semis again this year and the goal was met as the Cougars overcame a 20-8 halftime deficit to escape 30-28. The victory also avenged a 38-16 loss to Mountain Pine in Week 2.

“We knew that no one in the state besides people in our group thought we could win,” Hendrix said. “I told them that as long as we believe it, then we can do it. You can not worry about what other people think, we just have to worry about ourselves.”

Being a Rector native and seeing how close the program has been to a. high level success is personally satisfying to Hendrix.

“It is very special, but what goes unnoticed is the guys through the years who have gotten us to this level,” he said, “We have gotten close, but we could never knock the door down.”

It was the 38-8 loss to Izard County on September 30 that Hendrix felt gave his team a reality check that was very much needed. Rector has won five-straight since that time and finished second only to ICC in the North conference standings.

“I think that was a game that woke us up a little bit and told us that we weren’t where we needed to be and needed to work a little harder,” Hendrix said. “I think from that point on we have gotten better and just kind of gelled as a team.”

Rector has averaged 30 points per game behind a strong rushing attack led by the trio of Jacob Cox, Drew Henderson, and Jackson Hill. Cox leads in yardage with 1,005 yards and 9 touchdowns, followed by Henderson in touchdowns with 14 and 778 yards, while Hill has 775 yards and 9 scores.

Henderson has labored at quarterback after taking over because of an injury to a teammate and has thrown for 198 yards and 4 touchdowns, while Sam Shipley leads in receiving with 226 yards and 2 touchdowns.

With great offensive production, it goes without saying that you have to play effectively in the trenches to make it to this point in the season and Hendrix praised both sides of the interior lines.

“Up front, we have played much better,” Hendrix said. “For us to run the style that we do, that is who our bread and butter are.”

Defensively, Rector has allowed 20 points per game - 16 during the five-game win streak - and it all starts with Jacob Mooneyhan who is the heart and soul of that unit and leads the Cougars with 70 total tackles.

“He is a hard-nosed kid and sometimes we kid that he misses as many as he makes,” Hendrix said. “He is one who has prepared like all of our kids have to get where he is at. He is not the most talented in the world, but just a hard-nosed kid.”

Other key defensive contributors are Dalton Lamar (60 tackles), Henderson (45), and Avery (4 interceptions).

Hendrix acknowledged that his squad faces an uphill battle with the amount of weapons ICC boasts but feels they have learned from the lopsided contest when the teams last saw one another.

“They have two or three guys who are just matchup nightmares, and you really cannot key on one,” Hendrix said. “They are a sound football team and as far as skill they are a little bit more talented than we are. We just have to do what we do and hopefully we can get a break or two and stay in the game.”