JONESBORO — While Westside and Brookland no longer have a conference connection on the football field, the teams’ head coaches are quick to say the Warriors and Bearcats still share a rivalry.
Separated by 15 miles, the Warriors (0-1) and Bearcats (1-0) meet for the 10th time Friday night at Westside’s Warrior Stadium. Westside won the first nine games in the series, but three of the last four meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Last year’s meeting was the first non-conference game between the two after Brookland, which started varsity football in 2012, was moved to Class 5A in football. The schools remain conference rivals in other sports in Class 4A.
Next year, with the start of a new classification cycle, the teams will play in the season opener.
“Just being close, it helps on travel for both teams, both communities. A lot of the people know each other and it’s turned into a pretty good-sized rival game,” Westside head coach Bobby Engle said. “I know Coach (Chuck) Speer would never call it that because those guys had never beaten us before, but to us it’s a rivalry game. Being in such close proximity, our kids know their kids, that type of thing, and it’s been close several times.
“We barely got out of there a couple different times with a win. We’re just hoping we can put one more in the books Friday night.”
The Warriors needed a last-play touchdown to win 27-26 two years ago and escaped with a 28-21 victory over the Bearcats last year. Westside eked out an 11-8 victory over Brookland in 2017.
Second-year Brookland head coach Eric Munoz, whose team also plays Nettleton and Valley View during its conference schedule, said a rivalry between the Bearcats and Warriors has always been there.
“I think it’s good to have these two communities play each other because I think the turnout of fans will be awesome for the kids to experience,” Munoz said. “As far as the rivalry, I think that was intact before I got here.”
Brookland eked out a 7-6 victory at Gosnell in its season opener. Jack Henry Pettit threw a touchdown pass to David York and Gabe Guimond kicked the extra point that provided the margin of victory.
A second-quarter touchdown pass was all the Bearcat defense yielded against the Pirates. Brookland stopped the two-point conversion to keep the lead for good.
“Hats off to our defense, they played a heck of a game,” Munoz said. “We tackled really well, gave up that one touchdown, which it was just a heck of a play by Gosnell. They caught the ball pretty much in double coverage.”
Linebackers Joseph Wright and Ryan Hernandez helped key the Bearcats’ defensive effort. Engle was also impressed by Brookland’s play at noseguard, where 5-10, 345-pound Cole Tacker and 6-0, 325-pound Reggie Barnes rotate.
“They’ve got really fast linebackers on defense and up front, their noseguard is huge. He can clog both A gaps and do what he needs to do up there,” Engle said. “You go outside or you try to run inside, it’s kind of a pick-your-poison type of thing trying to go after those linebackers or trying to go on the inside.”
Wright and Kaden Matthews fueled a strong ground game last season, but the Bearcats’ two running backs found limited room against Gosnell as Brookland had 18 yards rushing as a team. Munoz said his team needs to take care of the ball and fix a few flaws up front.
“I’ll give credit to Gosnell, too, they had a heck of a front seven and they gave our offensive line everything they could handle,” Munoz said. “We just have to do a better job of getting our kids ready up front and that’s what we’re striving to do this week, get those guys ready to go and firing on all cylinders.”
Westside’s Cameron Hedger returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Greene County Tech, but the Warriors didn’t score again until the fourth quarter of a 27-15 loss to the Eagles.
Hedger also broke a 63-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to finish with 113 yards on 16 carries. The Warriors, who did not complete a pass, had 166 yards rushing as a team.
“We can take a number of different things away from that. On the negative side, I didn’t think we were in the shape we needed to be in, which that’s on me as the head coach. I’ve got to get my team in better shape,” Engle said. “I really thought on the positive side, though, we moved the ball some. We had some missed blocking assignments up front and out of the backfield also. We didn’t do our job very good on offense, I didn’t think, to a point, and at points we looked really good. It’s kind of a flip of a coin depending on what you’re looking at.”
Munoz said he saw a hard-nosed, physical team when he watched video of the Warriors.
“That’s what they were last year. They’re going to control the clock and run the football at you,” Munoz said. “Their kids on defense play really hard, they play sound defense. They’re not going to give up any big plays, they’re going to make you earn it.”