Familiar playoff foe awaits Warriors

Westside defenders, including Tyler Ray (34) and Connor Crain (44), wrap up Highland’s Brayden Figgins during an Oct. 30 game at Warrior Field. The Warriors visit Hamburg on Friday in the state playoffs.

JONESBORO — The Westside Warriors are preparing for a game they didn’t figure to play a week ago.

Last Wednesday, Westside canceled its last regular-season game at Gosnell and announced it would not be able to participate in the state playoffs because of COVID-19 positive cases and contacts within the football program. When the school took another look, however, the decision regarding postseason play changed.

And when the Class 4A state playoff field was announced Saturday, the Warriors were on the bracket.

“Our administration went back and took a really hard look, a second look at stuff, our superintendent, our principal and our AD,” Westside head coach Bobby Engle said. “They sat down and took a really hard look on times and distances that guys were around each other, some different scenarios that didn’t lead us to quarantine everybody. We felt like if we had enough to play, we ought to give these kids an opportunity to do that.”

Westside will visit Hamburg, a familiar postseason opponent, for a play-in game Friday night. The winner advances to play Stuttgart in the first round Nov. 20.

The Warriors (3-6) and Lions (4-5) are meeting in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. Hamburg won 20-7 in the first round when the teams met in 2017 and Westside prevailed 35-20 last year in the second round.

“We’ve seen them two out of the last three years. When we got that draw, we were like, ‘Really? Come on, now.’ But it is what it is, and we’ll take it,” Engle said. “We’re lucky to be in the position we’re in, considering the circumstances we were in at the beginning of the week. Being familiar with them, I don’t think they’re going to do just a whole lot different. They do look better than what they were last year across the board as far as athletic-wise, speed-wise. We just really have to make sure we’re in the right spot this week, especially down a few starters.”

Engle said the Warriors will be without 14 players, including four two-way starters, for Friday’s game.

Two more players who start on one side of the ball will miss the game as well. Four freshmen moved up from the junior high team.

“I preach to these guys every day and all year long about preparing yourself to play,” Engle said. “Sometimes that’s hard to get through to guys who aren’t playing every week, but you never know when a situation like this is going to happen. Guys are going to have to step up.”

Most of Westside’s offensive backfield should be available, Engle said, including senior running back Tyler Ray and senior quarterback River Engle.

Ray gained 133 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries in the Warriors’ 34-14 victory over Highland on Oct. 30, bringing his season rushing total to 987 yards and 11 touchdowns.

River Engle has 479 yards and seven touchdowns rushing after gaining 123 and a touchdown against Highland. He has also passed for 475 yards on the season.

“There’s not a whole lot of changes to what we do, just some different guys in different positions,” Bobby Engle said. “We’ve had to move a couple of guys around. It’s just a matter of shuffling a few guys here and there.”

Hamburg played only four of its seven conference games in 4A-8, beating Monticello and Helena-West Helena Central before losing to Warren and Dumas the last two weeks. Westside played each of its first nine games before canceling last week.

Engle said the Warriors were frustrated when they had to cancel the Gosnell game.

“With COVID like it is, you just really don’t know,” he said. “It’s kind of a blessing just to be playing still. We’re going to try to take advantage of it and make the best of our opportunity.”