Powered by standout performances from sophomores Breylin Smith and D.J. Johnson, Conway began its conference schedule with a 38-24 win against the Russellville Cyclones on Friday night at John McConnell Stadium.
Smith finished 22 of 26 for 267 yards and three touchdowns.
“He just gets better every week,” coach Clint Ashcraft said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is (Smith) has only played four high school football games in his life. It’s real impressive to see what he’s been able to do so far.”
Johnson was on the receiving end of two of those scores, and finished with 137 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches.
“I still have a lot of improving to do,” Johnson said. “I’ve just got to get better at the little things.”
“D.J. is learning every week,” Ashcraft said. “I don’t know that he played in week one, and you’re seeing his time go up on the field.
“He’s just one of those guys who is learning as we go, and we expect great things from him and Breylin down the road.”
The win helped Conway (3-1, 1-0 7A/6A Central) move past a 23-9 loss at Cabot on Sept. 20, a game in which the Wampus Cats saw a 9-7 lead disappear in the fourth quarter.
“We just had to get our attitude right,” Ashcraft said. “We had to fix a lot of things from last week. (I’m) just real proud of the way we played. That was a team win.”
Ashcraft said the team did not shy away from the loss to Cabot as it was mentioned every day in preparation for Russellville.
“We told them we weren’t going to ignore it, we weren’t going to put it in the closet, we’ve got to learn from it,” he said. “We’ve got to come to play every night or things like that are going to happen.”
Ashcraft’s approach helped the players get in the right mindset before Friday’s game against Russellville, Johnson said.
“He told us to think about how bad we felt when we lost to Cabot, and everyone got in that mindset and took it out on Russellville,” he said.
Conway’s first highlight of the night came from the defense as senior defensive back Malik Clemons intercepted a pass on Russellville’s first drive. Clemons would ultimately fumble the ball back to Russellville, but the Wampus Cats defense forced a Cyclones punt, giving the offense the ball at its 42.
Junior tailback Karlil Johnson gave Conway its first lead of the night on a 3-yard touchdown run at the 5:30 mark of the first quarter. Johnson finished with 46 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries.
Russellville (3-1, 0-1) responded on its next drive, going 80 yards in 11 plays, scoring on a 1-yard run by junior running back Kentrel Scott.
Kevin Chamorro fumbled on a first-and-goal carry at the Cyclones 2, but Russellville would give the ball right back to Conway on an interception by Anthony Tufu. Chamorro would make up for his previous mistake as he scored on a 1-yard run to give the Wampus Cats the lead for good.
Conway’s third interception of the night, this time from junior Collin Condit, set up a nine-play, 92-yard touchdown drive for the Wampus Cats as Smith connected with Johnson for 32 yards.
The score gave Conway a 21-7 lead at halftime.
With the help of two Conway three-and-outs to start the second half, Russellville rallied to within four points on two scorings drives — one touchdown and one field goal — with 4:40 remaining in the third quarter.
Cyclones senior receiver Jalen Curtis set up the touchdown on arguably the most memorable play of the game.
After receiving a lateral near the home sideline from quarterback Cody Jones, Curtis appeared to be looking to throw, but pressure from the Wampus Cats defense forced the receiver to run across the field and down the visitor sideline for a 72-yard gain to the Conway 3.
“When you’ve got great athletes, they can make busted plays into great plays and that’s what happened,” Ashcraft said.
The Conway coach praised the efforts of Russellville’s skill players, who gave the Wampus Cats defense problems all night.
“We can’t simulate that in practice,” Ashcraft said. “That may be the best set of skill kids that we’ll see all year.”
After the Russellville score, Smith would extend Conway’s lead back to double digits, at 28-17, on a 6-yard pass to Sidney Moore with 3:12 left in the third quarter.
Russellville clawed back to within four points just before the end of the third quarter on Jones’ second touchdown pass of the night. However, two scores in the fourth quarter from Conway — a 7-yard touchdown reception by Johnson and a 29-yard field goal by Matt Cummins — sealed the win for the Wampus Cats.
The win was a rebound for a Wampus Cats team that scored nine points and gave up 23 last week after averaging more than 28, and giving up a combined 21 points in its first two contests.
“We just felt like our confidence was shaken a little bit, so that’s why tonight was so big,” Ashcraft said. “I think we kind of had to prove something to ourselves, and I feel like we did that.”
Conway will host the Little Rock Hall Warriors (0-3, 0-1 7A/6A Central) on Oct. 4 at John McConnell Stadium for homecoming.
(Staff writer Lee Hogan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1246. Follow Lee Hogan on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LCD_LeeHogan. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)