JONESBORO — The Westside Warriors ascended to the top of the 4A-3 conference last season, claiming the first league football championship in school history, and they like the view.
With some key returnees from last season’s 9-3 state quarterfinal team and and talented sophomores who enjoyed a perfect season last year in junior high, the Warriors have their sights set on the pinnacle again.
“Obviously we want to defend the crown as far as the conference championship,” said sixth-year Westside head coach Bobby Engle, whose team opens Friday night at Greene County Tech. “We want to be there to kind of let people know that wasn’t a one-time deal. That’s where you want to be every year. You want to be in the top three to give yourself a chance to play for a conference championship.”
Last year the Warriors played for the 4A-3 championship in the last game of the regular season, edging Gosnell 36-30 when workhorse running back Logan McPherson scored with 11 seconds left in the game.
After a first-round bye in the state playoffs, the Warriors achieved another program first by beating Hamburg 35-20 for their first-ever postseason victory. Eventual state champion Joe T. Robinson ended Westside’s season in the next round, but the Warriors gave the Senators their closest game in the playoffs before falling 20-7.
“Last year (the 4A-3 title) came down to the last game and it was one of those things where things worked out right for us and we pulled it off,” Engle said. “I’m proud of my guys for that, but I told them at the beginning of practice this year, that was last year and that’s done and gone.
“We have to make our own history this year, go out there and practice and play like you’re the conference champions. They’ve been doing a pretty good job of that.”
While McPherson graduated after running for 2,279 yards and 24 touchdowns, the Warriors expect another strong offense with three seniors in the backfield.
Senior quarterback River Engle played through pain last year after suffering a sprain in his non-throwing right shoulder in the season opener. With their 6-foot-2 signal caller healthy for his third year as a starter, Bobby Engle said the Warriors’ offense has a whole new dynamic.
“He’s the one who kind of makes it tick,” Coach Engle said. “Everything is pretty smooth when he’s in there and sometimes not so smooth when he’s not.”
Senior tailback Tyler Ray also played a key role in Westside’s success last season with 857 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. “He’s a pretty good load at 210, 220 pounds coming downhill at you full speed,” Engle said.
Senior Jared Garner moves into the backfield on a full-time basis after playing slot receiver last year. Sophomore Darvin Fowler takes over at fullback.
Engle said the Warriors figure to spread carries a little more after handing the ball to McPherson 275 times last season.
“Ray is a more physical runner and Garner, same way, is a more physical-type runner. Those guys are going to get chunks of yards at times, but I don’t think they have that breakaway speed that McPherson had,” Engle said. “Fowler is the same way, he’s going to be a physical runner, a downhill type. I’ve got two guys who have pretty good speed who are going to see some carries and that’s Cameron Hedger and Connor Crain, and they’re both sophomores.”
Third-year starter Kaleb Porter returns at left tackle as a senior. The Warriors are also counting on senior tight end Jonah Raburn, senior guard Robert Taylor, senior centers Kade Carter and Jake Jones, senior guard Nathan Adams and junior tackle Spencer Long to open running lanes. Senior Kesler Engle is the starting wide receiver.
Ray is also a key player defensively at inside linebacker, where he made 89 tackles last season. Sophomore Gus Yearta plays alongside Ray at inside linebacker. Raburn and Crain are the outside linebackers.
The Warriors have experience up front with Carter, Taylor and Kaleb Porter. Carter finished with 49 tackles last season.
Westside has secondary experience with senior starters in Kesler Engle at cornerback, Ty Johnson at cornerback and Garner at safety, where he made 71 tackles last fall. Hedger is also set to start at safety.
Bobby Engle said the 4A-3 became a little tougher with the addition of Blytheville, but he sees a number of teams that are capable of contending.
“I think our conference is trending up as far as being competitive and having more good teams,” he said. “Pocahontas is obviously the favorite with as many guys as they have returning. Blytheville will probably be in the mix and Gosnell has a couple of great athletes coming back, and we hope to be in the mix. You’ve got four teams there that should be battling for that top spot.”
Aug. 28 at GCT
Sept. 4 at Brookland
Sept. 11 Hoxie
Sept. 25 Trumann
Oct. 2 at Blytheville
Oct. 9 Rivercrest
Oct. 16 at Cave City
Oct. 23 Pocahontas
Oct. 30 Highland
Nov. 6 at Gosnell