It took three more weeks than Saline County has been used to the past several years, but Salt Bowl week is officially here. The Benton Panthers and Bryant Hornets kicked off the week with a Salt Bowl press conference at War Memorial Stadium late Monday afternoon in preparation for Friday’s Salt Bowl at WMS in Little Rock.
“This one is a little bit different in that it’s not the first game of the year,” Salt Bowl organizer Shane Broadway said. “It’s Week 4, but this one counts. This is a conference clash and there is a lot more riding on the line than just county pride.”
Friday’s Salt Bowl will be the two team’s 13th battle when the Salt Bowl became official in 2000. The teams have been meeting since 1976, with the Panthers holding a 24-14-1 record (including playoffs), but the Hornets have been the team the beat since the Salt Bowl started with a 10-1-1 record with the 34-34 tie coming in 2003’s Salt Bowl.
“Not only is it a big rivalry game this year, but it’s the first conference game which is very important; a lot more important than the past few years,” Benton Coach Scott Neathery said. “It’s something we all look forward to, but it’s also nice we get to do it in a place like this (War Memorial). I feel really good about our football team so far. We feel good coming into this football game.”
The game starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday and tickets to the game are available at Big Red Stores for $10 with the purchase including a Salt Bowl T-shirt.
“It’s a big deal to play in the Salt Bowl,” senior Benton all-state linebacker Carson Holloway said. “Everybody gets hyped up for it. It’s the biggest high school football game of the year. It’s a big deal to be a part of the Saline County rivalry and I hate it’s my last year to get to play in it.”
Holloway leads the Panthers with 41 tackles (seven for lost yardage), two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
“We’ve been preparing since June and all summer long we’ve practiced hard,” Holloway said. “We’ve been there every morning during the summer at 7 a.m. We’ve worked hard and it’s time to show them what we’re made of.”
The Hornets have taken the past six Salt Bowl meetings including last year’s 21-14 victory over the Panthers.
“We’ve been going back and forth with this rivalry,” Benton senior all-conference running back Wallace Foote said. “Last year, we came close to winning, but couldn’t pull it off. We both played very well, but we should have pulled it off. This year, I want to show them what we’re made of and how hard we’ve been working since June.”
Foote leads the county in more than one offensive category as he is ranked No. 1 with 298 rushing yards, 56 carries (5.3 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. Foote is also tied for fourth with 8 receptions for 121 yards and a TD, giving him seven total TDs which also leads the county.
“I’ve got friends on Bryant, I’ve got friends on Benton,” Foote said. “It’s something fun to play in. We’ve been working hard. I know they’ve been working hard. They’ve got a good coach and we’ve got a good coach too. We’re just ready to play Friday.”
The Panthers (1-2) have their hands full with a potent Hornets’ offense led by senior quarterback Hayden Lessenberry. Bryant (2-1), coached by Paul Calley, will probably stick to the air when it faces Benton.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys on our offense, but we’ve got a lot of young, special guys that are going to come out and step up,” Lessenberry said. “We’ve asked them to do a lot and they’ve answered to everything the coaches have been saying, they listen very well and we’re just going to come out and do what we do, and try to come out with a victory.”
Lessenberry is second in the county with a 145.38 passer rating, completing 34 of 53 passes for 403 yards with four TDs and two interceptions.
“This year’s Salt Bowl is the biggest game of my life,” Lessenberry said. “It’s senior year and everybody is looking forward to it. It’s a great rivalry between Benton and Bryant and just to be able to play in War Memorial Stadium and come out in front of all the fans, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s going to be my last year playing for the Bryant Hornets and I’ve loved every second of it.”
Defensively, the Hornets are led by the front line, in which senior defensive tackle Kordell Boykins is a part of.
“Our defense, we’re pretty stacked this year,” Boykins said. “We have a lot of people returning and we have a lot of new people stepping up on both sides of the ball. There’s a lot of young talent that’s going to keep Bryant alive the next couple years after we leave.”
“This is going to be a very, very exciting game because this is the first time that it’s actually conference. Not only do we have the desire, the Salt Bowl mentality to come out with the victory, but it’s our first conference game so it’s going to mean so much to both teams, so much to Bryant and Benton. It’s a good thing for the community, and we’re going to come out and play our ball.
“The thing I love about this year is we’ve had three games to smooth out all those edges and everything and we’re going to come with it. I’m looking forward to it.”
On Friday, there will be a tailgate party starting at 5 p.m. on the east side of War Memorial Stadium. Bryant will be on the west side of War Memorial Stadium as the home team and Benton will be on the east. During halftime, Everett Buick GMC will sponsor Throw for a Truck and Chick-fil-A will sponsor a Kick for Chicken where someone will have a chance for a year’s worth of chicken from the franchise by kicking a field goal.
Tonight, there will be a community-wide pep rally at Everett Buick GMC. Benton’s rally will start at 5 p.m. and go through 6:30 p.m., and Bryant’s rally will be from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Kickoff for Friday’s game will be 7:30 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium and both Coach Neathery and Coach Calley will be on 103.7 The Buzz Friday morning.
“I don’t think there is anywhere in the state of Arkansas that compares to this,” Calley said of high school football.