By Steve Andrews | Photo by Sadie Rucker
Saturday’s Class 5A state championship game should seem routine to Shiloh Christian quarterback Eli Wisdom, who will be starting in his third consecutive title game in three years.
The senior led the Saints to the Class 4A title two years ago with a 58-20 win over Rivercrest, then fell to Joe T. Robinson in last season’s 4A finale, 42-14.
And although Shiloh was elevated to Class 5A this year, the Saints will go marching into Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon for the fourth consecutive year, to face Little Rock Parkview.
“Of course, you’re a little nervous anytime you go into a game like this, but it’s nothing new, going back for my third time now,” Wisdom said. “It’s awesome to be a part of a program like this and getting these opportunities. I’m looking forward to it, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ve just got to go out there and play me ball, just be me and be a great leader and a great teammate.
Both teams come in on hot streaks, as Shiloh (12-1) has won 12 straight games after falling to Little Rock Christian 49-14 in the season opener. Parkview (12-2) lost two of its first three games but has since reeled off 11 consecutive victories, including a 27-12-win last week over Joe T. Robison, last year’s 4A state champion.
The Patriots, who took a step down from 6A this season, are seeking to become the first Little Rock team to win a state football championship since Central won the title in 2004.
“Our kids are excited, and they understand the task at hand,” Parkview head coach Brad Bolding said. “They have embraced that challenge and taken a lot of pride in getting a Little Rock team back in the championship game. And I couldn’t be more proud of them for that.”
The Patriots have not played for a state title since 1983 and have not won a championship since 1978. They will have the location advantage, as the school is just four miles from War Memorial Stadium, which is also their home playing field.
Now, the challenge, is finding a way to hold down Wisdom and the Shiloh offense.
“We know they are going to make plays, because they’ve done it all year, and you are not going to completely shut that offense down,” Bolding admitted. “We’ve just got to minimize the big plays, especially their quarterback, who makes plays all over the field.”
Parkview’s focus will be on Wisdom, senior receiver Bodie Neal and junior running back Bo Williams. Wisdom has thrown for 2,939 yards and 34 touchdowns this season while rushing for another 1,431 and 20 scores. Neal has hauled in 87 of those passes for 1,513 yards and 17 scores, and the bulldozing Williams has churned out 1,372 yards and a team-high 28 TDs.
“Those three guys really make things go on offense and, of course, their offensive line is really good and will get after you and stay with their blocks,” Bolding said. “Yeah, Wisdom’s got wheels, man. He can run like the kid at Robinson, but a much better thrower, and he makes some good decision and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
“From what I’ve seen on film, he has improved big time from last year to this year. It won’t be the same guy that you saw in the state championship game last year.”
Junior quarterback Eric McGehee orchestrates the Patriot offense, which is loaded with athletes all over the field. McGehee has throw for 1,898 yards and 21 TDs this season but also relies on a strong three-headed rushing attack, led by 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior tailback Darien Bennett, who has racked up 901 yards on the ground with 12 touchdowns. He led the charge in last week’s win with 133 yards and 2 TDs.
“That’s the thing with our offense -- we can run it, we can throw it, and we can do a lot of outside perimeter stuff really well, just because we’ve got some really good skill guys,” Bolding said. “Eric has really progressed since the first of the year and I have been really pleased with him. And Darien just looks for contact. He loves it. But we have three backs that rotate, and they can all run the football well, so we are able to keep fresh legs.”
Parkview is undoubtedly the most physically talented team the Saints will have face all season, according to Shiloh head coach Jeff Conway.
“On the film and the games we’ve evaluated, they are solid at every position,” Conaway said. “They’re big, they’re fast and they’re athletic. They play hard and play physical. There’s a whole lot of Division I offers on that team. So, we are going to have to match that physicality and that speed, and just the intensity of how that game is going to be played is a huge priority for us.
“They’ve got three running backs that are extremely productive and three receivers that can score from just about any spot on the field. And their offensive and defensive lines are big and strong. They’ve got some guys at linebacker with speed, and they’ve got some elite-type DBs, who do a great job defending the pass.”
Conaway is proud of his team for making it back to the title game, despite the step up in class, and feels fortunate to have his veteran signal-caller leading the charge for the final time.
“It is a huge advantage having someone that has been there and done it,” he said. “Eli’s never played in a game too big, and he understands how to play at War Memorial. So we are thankful that he’s back to lead us one more time.
“I think Eli has grown in so many ways. The most effective differences are the way he leads and the decisions that he makes. He has also gotten much more accurate distributing the football and is explosive in the run game.”
Making it to Little Rock on the final weekend of the season is the ultimate goal for all teams in the state but making it there four years in a row is a tribute to a program with a strong foundation. And that’s the way Conway likes it.
“It never gets old,” he assured. “It’s always a new team, a new challenge and a new journey. And we are extremely thankful, but also hambled, to be back there again. There are a lot of good teams that could be here, so to make it to this game I think you’ve got to stay healthy, you’ve got to catch some breaks and you’ve got to have some luck. And I think we have experienced all that.”