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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

July 23: Time for Arkansas Governor’s Late Summer Hail Mary Pass to Play High School Sports

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Perhaps no single play call has epitomized pulling out a victory in the most desperate of situations than that of the “Hail Mary” pass. That long pass down the field, often on the last play of the game that has very little chance of being completed, but is called out of complete desperation to win a game with no time remaining.

One of the most dramatic “Hail Mary” calls occurred in a 1984 NCAA game between Boston College and Miami. In that game, BC quarterback Doug Flutie connected on a desperation bomb to teammate Gerrard Phelan for the game winning touchdown over the Hurricanes on the game’s last play.

Boston College’s Doug Flute Connects with Gerrard Phelan on Last Play with No Time Remaining to Defeat Miami in 1984. Video courtesy of Youtube.com

Time is running out for the summer and a decision to play or not to play high school sports in Arkansas this fall. And as time runs out, it will be up to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison to make a “Hail Mary” call to save the fall sports seasons, both in Arkansas high schools and colleges, as well. There is no time remaining for a slow, methodical drive toward the winning decision to play. We are out of time outs, and we are behind. Players and coaches have not had the opportunity to prepare their teams this summer, but it is still possible to play if the decision is made soon. But, our players and coaches are out of time, and it is time for the governor to make the call.

With some in the media predicting an announcement on or before July 31st from the Arkansas Governor’s Office, time is drawing near for perhaps a much clearer picture on what may or may not happen with Arkansas high school sports this fall. And just as in the case of the “Hail Mary” pass having a low percentage chance to work, it is a call that has to be made to win the game. The same is true for Governor Hutchison; the task may seem impossible, but the decision to play sports must be made for our kids to have a chance to win.

The common belief among many is that if the decision were solely in the hands of the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA), the decision would have been made by now to play football and volleyball in the fall with certain safeguards in place to provide as much protection as possible for the players, coaches, fans, and all others involved in the sports. In fact, the AAA released its third press release in the recent weeks regarding policies and statements that have made reference to preparing to play in the fall. The latest was this week in which the AAA clarified how eligibility will be determined for high school athletes who are taking advantage of virtual (online) learning during the fall in lieu of traditional attendance of classes held on campuses.

Arkansas Activities Association Press Release, July 21, 2020

In short, the AAA’s announcement of July 21 waives the current rule that students must attend classes “at least one period per day at the school” if enrolled in an online program. As explained by the AAA, this waiver became necessary for those students who choose to attend online classes due to COVID-19 concerns and still remain eligible to play high school sports. As in many cases, as rules may be necessary and adopted in the spirit of what is intended to be fair and applicable to the student-athlete, it is hoped that it will not be misused as a way to recruit or otherwise circumvent rules on high school eligibility.

While fans wait for the decisions that will affect both high school and collegiate sports in Arkansas, the University of Arkansas released a draft plan for the continuance of football this fall should the state and the Southeastern Conference decides to play football this fall. Major points to the U of A plan include: a cap on fan capacity at Donald W. Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium of under 33,000 fans (stadium capacity is 76,212) that would be prioritized to season ticket holders, no on-field presentations such as pregame and halftime ceremonies and shows, no presence of the band or other spirit groups, the players’ sidelines extended from the 15 yard line to the opposite end 15 yard line, and sideline personnel limited to players, coaches, essential team support personnel and media only. This is just a draft list at this point, but it does give fans a glimpse into what sports could look like in both high school and collegiate sports this fall.

As the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic continues, its effects on schools and students continues, as well. Some states have cancelled fall marching band seasons. Some states have moved fall sports to the spring semester. Some have postponed the start of fall sports to August 31. There is no common direction or movement among states and colleges, and states’ governors, conference commissioners, and extracurricular governing associations face the toughest decisions in their recent histories with respect to the question of play or no play this fall. On the publication date of this story, perhaps we will all finally know what is going to happen a little more than a week from today. One of many coaches who anxiously awaits that decision is Paris High School head football coach Tyler Clark.

Tyler Clark, Paris Head Football Coach

Coach Clark appeared on Tuesday’s Sports Brew Show along with four of his offensive and defensive linemen for the upcoming season. Coach Clark and the Eagles have a lot of experienced talent returning in 2020, and everyone in the program wants the chance to play this fall.

Speaking about his talented and experienced linemen, Coach Clark said, “Anything good that happens to us this year will be because of these guys. Things are going really good. We’ve talked to our kids day in and day out about we can’t control the future; we don’t know what is going to happen. All we can do is keep showing up and keep getting after it until they make us close the doors. Our kids have done a really good job of showing up. There is only so much we can do, so, when you do that for six weeks there becomes a point where our guys get tired of doing the same thing over and over again. Any kid would. But doing those things repetitively will pay huge dividends in the fourth quarter when we are wore out. What I am most excited about is our team is showing up and working their tails off every day because they know we are fixing to be a really good football team.”

As the summer conditioning program continues, there is evidence that the Eagles are developing depth at their skill positions, as well. Coach Clark said, “There is nothing but good things going on with our football team. Our linemen, have worked with our skill positions players. And having Jude Simmons continue to develop as a quality player at quarterback, to be able to run the offense and have some success moving us forward is only going to help us. We are giving Jude as many reps as we can. And our linemen’s number one job is protecting Chase Watts. They (offensive linemen) are the key to what we are doing. Chase can sling it, but he knows our offense. He knows exactly what we are trying to do when we call plays. Our receivers are playing well. We’re fast, we’re big, and hopefully we will find out that we are pretty physical, too.”

Protecting Chase Watts’s blindside (his back to the rush from his left side) will be senior Ryan Post. Ryan’s number one responsibility will be to protect his quarterback’s blindside. Chase will be in good hands with Ryan’s work at left tackle.

Coach Clark feels really good about his defense too. “We expect the offensive line to be our strong point. On defense, we expect those same kids who are playing the defensive line to be the strong point of our defense. It’s a little bit different on offense and defense; on offense, if those guys make a mistake, there is no second player (the defensive rusher pressures the quarterback). On defense, we still have to do our jobs, but there are layers behind them. We have linebackers playing behind them, and secondary behind the linebackers. So, I am just going to be honest…we are going to dominate both lines of scrimmage. They are going to be tired, no doubt.” A lesson learned in last year’s game versus Mansfield when the Eagles jumped out to a sizable lead but lost the game in the second half when the Eagles got tired. That is something that Coach Clark has not let his team forget, and appears to be a prime motivator in the off-season conditioning and preparation for the 2020 team.

Appearing on the show with Coach Clark were linemen Adam Chandler, Jimmy Dikeman, Mequell Ellingburg, and Ryan Post. Four very impressive players who will be the key to the Eagles success in 2020.

According to the website “Next College Student Athlete”, Chandler is listed as 6’2″, 260 lbs. Since that publication, the team now lists him as 6’3″, 230 lbs. He is an offensive and defensive tackle. He runs a 5.3 40 yard dash and bench presses 290 lbs. This will be Adam’s senior year. He and the rest of the Eagles are working out like the season will start tomorrow. As Adam prepares for a season of unknowns, he said, “I want to play in a conference championship game. I think all of us do. We have been working a lot. Hopefully, we will have football. It would be terrible if we didn’t. It is our last year; me and Jimmy (Dikeman). We have put too much time and effort in to not having it. It would hurt my chances to go to college, too.” Chandler, like the other three Paris linemen who appeared on the show, all have legitimate chances to play college football on some level. It is very important to them and every other high school player to have the chance to play this fall.

Chandler paid his coach, Tyler Clark, a big complement on the show. In a poignant moment, Adam said that his coach has had his back and has supported him all the way. “I wasn’t feeling so good about some home life and he told me every single time that if you ever needed me he would be there. I keep that in mind.”

Thus the case for high school sports. So many of our players in all sports need the opportunity to be reunited with their coaches and have the chance to play the sports they love and receive the guidance from their coaches that can be life changing experiences for so many.

Jimmy Dikeman may be the biggest of the group affectionately known as the “big uglies.” Jimmy has worked hard over the past three years to get his body ready for his senior season. Dikeman commented, “The main thing is that you have to show up and work. I just worked out in the weight room 24/7, ate a lot healthier, and I’m losing weight in body fat and gaining it back in muscle. I am still working on that. I have lost 30 lbs. this summer so far. I am trying to lose more and gain it back in muscle. I weigh 304 right now.”

For Jimmy Dikeman, he too will be playing his senior season at Paris High School. Jimmy said, “Pretty much the same thing that Adam said. I hope we can play in a playoff game. I am not going to look too far into the future, because right now it is every day of working hard. You really can’t look into the future. You need to set out on a path, but there is always that one thing that may bump you off of it. So you have to be prepared for anything. It is just like a road you have never been on before. You don’t know what is going to be a mile down the road. Don’t know anything. One month from now, it will be we can play football or we can’t. It would be very bad if we don’t. It would be heartbreaking. But that is just another obstacle and we can’t control it.”

If Adam’s and Jimmy’s comments are any indication of the level of senior leadership that they and the rest of the seniors will bring to this team, the Eagles are in very good hands with this group of leaders. One can not help but to be impressed with their maturity and winning attitudes that have to be infectious throughout the team.

As mentioned earlier, junior Ryan Post will play left tackle for the Eagles. Left tackle may be the prime position on offensive lines at any level as they have a big responsibility to protect the quarterback’s back side from the rush he cannot see. Chase Watts will be in good hands with the 6’3, 285 lb tackle protecting him. Ryan is primarily slated to be an offensive lineman, but could contribute some on defense. His teammate, Miquell Ellingburg, who is listed as 6’1″, 235 lbs., will play offensive guard and defensive end. Ellingburg loves playing multiple positions, as he commented, “I just like being able to make an impact and help the team win. I can’t kick the ball very well, but if you want me to work on field goals I will do my best. I like winning more than anything.”

Ryan spoke about the work he has invested in his preparation to play this season. “I’m a country boy. I haul hay, chicken feed, and do things that keep me pretty strong and in shape. Coach sends us our workout papers (training plans and routines) each week. I think just doing all of that and running in the back yard a little bit has helped.”

So, Governor Hutchison, give these fine young men, as well as all of the athletes in boys and girls high school sports across the state the chance to play this fall, on time, and with complete schedules. Time is getting late, but it is not too late for that “Hail Mary” call to give all of our student-athletes the chance to win this fall.

Jimmy Dikeman (72) Blocking Downfield Last Season vs. Charleston (Resident Press File Photo)
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Jim Best
Jim Best is a man of many talents. His storied career in Arkansas education led him to a new passion, and hidden gifts in sports journalism.
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