High school football: Benton’s season ends with another close loss in bowl game

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How do you judge if a team has had a successful season?

Some would say you go by the team’s record alone. In that case, Benton’s 2-5 mark in the 2020 season of COVID-19 doesn’t look good.

However, if you believe that being competitive in every game and leaving it all on the field is the true measure of success, then the Tigers had a very good season.

Benton’s season came to a close Friday night with a 21-17 loss to West Ouachita in the Louisiana Army National Guard Bowl Game at West Ouachita.

Because COVID-19 restrictions forced the season to start a month late and be cut from the usual 10-game regular season to eight, the LHSAA allowed teams that didn’t make the playoffs to schedule one “bowl” game.

Benton barely missed the playoffs, finishing one spot below the No. 32 cutline in the Class 5A power rankings. West Ouachita (3-3) was No. 36. Like the Tigers, the Chiefs moved up to 5A from 4A last season.

In a way, Friday’s game was a microcosm of the Tigers’ season. All five of Benton’s losses were by seven points or less. They were by a combined 18 points.

Benton certainly had an opportunity to win. Trailing by four, the Tigers drove inside the West Ouachita 2 late in the game.

Facing a fourth down, they incurred an illegal procedure penalty that moved the ball back to the 7. An incomplete pass followed.

West Ouachita then broke a long run. The Chiefs converted a fourth-and-3 at the Benton 26 with a diving catch and ran out the clock.

West Ouachita scored first. The 11-yard touchdown pass on third down was set up by a 51-yard catch and run.

Benton answered with a 49-yard drive that included passes from sophomore Gray Walters to Dane Stearns and RJ Moore. 

Pearce Russell scored the TD on a 6-yard pass from Walters.

West Ouachita regained the lead in the second quarter on a quarterback sneak set up by a 16-yard pass.

The Tigers then drove from their 39 to the Chiefs 12. But West Ouachita held and took over at the 8. The Benton defense then forced a punt from the 5 that traveled only 17 yards.

On the next play, Walters hit Stearns for a 22-yard score. Moore’s second PAT tied it at 14.

In the third quarter, Benton drove from its 4 to the West Ouachita 25. But an interception off a tipped ball at the 15 ended the threat.

The Tigers took the lead in the fourth after another long drive ended with a 35-yard field goal by Moore.

The Chiefs then used a 24-yard pass to reach the Benton 24. A sack by Ashur Hall resulted in a loss to the 33.

But on fourth-and-long, the Tigers were hit with a pass interference penalty on an incomplete pass down the West Ouachita sideline.

The Chiefs scored what would be the winning touchdown on an 11-yard pass.

Hall and Stearns are among two of 19 seniors listed on Benton’s roster.

A three-year starter, Hall closed his high school career with another outstanding game. He had 12 tackles from his middle linebacker position, including four for losses, and one sack.

Defensive lineman Cade Waites was another three-year starter. Defensive lineman Rowe Thompson and offensive linemen Nathan Hardin and Tucker Gibbs were also multi-year starters.

Stearns stepped up in a big way this season.

All helped Benton make the transition to District 1-5A. The Tigers proved they belong there this season, losing to Haughton by seven and Airline and Captain Shreve by three. All three made the playoffs.

The Tigers did not get a chance to play district champion Byrd, which advanced to the Division I semifinals Friday, because of COVID-19 issues.