On the same night the Conway Wampus Cats officially clinched a spot Class 7A playoffs, there was a need of going back to the drawing board.
The Cats had their share of struggles against longtime rival Russellville on Friday night at Centennial Bank Field at John McConnell Stadium. Cyclone quarterback Barrett Hughes didn’t, as he completed 19-of-27 passes for 299 yards and four touchdowns to lead Russellville to a 31-17 win.
"We’ve got to do a better job of getting the kids ready to play," said Conway coach Clint Ashcraft, who participated in his first game of the storied rivalry. "We had some mental mistakes, and we need to do a better job of being ready."
There was some good news, though. With Van Buren’s 55-14 loss to Cabot and Little Rock Central’s 28-0 loss to Little Rock Catholic, the Cats (3-6, 2-4) officially clinched a spot in the postseason — a feat they failed to accomplish last season.
But against the Cyclones (7-1-1, 5-1), Conway failed to accomplish what it did last season (a 10-7 victory over then undefeated and top-ranked Russellville).
Hughes had touchdown passes of 11, 33, 51 and 11 yards. Averian Collins, who hauled in six catches for 96 yards, was on the receiving end on two of those scores.
"He (Hughes) saw some things open up, and he really looked like he was doing the right things and in charge," Russellville coach Jeff Holt said.
The same can be said about the Cats defense to start the game.
The Cyclones, who can get at least a share of the 7A-Central Conference crown with a win next week against Cabot, took the opening drive all the way down to the Conway 1. An offsides penalty on fourth-and-1 gave Russellville a first down at the 3 before gaining just two yards on the next two plays. As was the case against Van Buren last week, the Cats stopped a fourth-and-goal from the 1 to half what had been a 13-play, 55-yard drive that took 6:10 off the clock.
"That was a big goal-line stand, and our kids did well with their backs against the wall," Ashcraft said. "We just didn’t do a good job of stopping them for the whole game."
The Cyclones’ misfortune quickly turned back into their favor, as Conway fumbled on its first play of the ensuing drive, setting Russellville up at the Cats’ 7. The Cyclones were able to get to the 1, but a false start penalty moved them back to the 6, where the drive stalled after a missed field goal.
"It’s extremely frustrating," Holt said of the missed chances near the end zone. "They just absolutely stuffed us."
Conway’s offense went three and out on the following possession before Hughes capped the Cyclones’ next drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cole Smith at the 11:31 mark in the second quarter for the first points of the game. Zach Hocker’s PAT gave Russellville a 7-0 lead.
Conway, though, managed some offense of its own. Facing third and 6 from the 24, the Cats got going when Xavier Acklin hit Tristan Eddings for a 17-yard pickup. Three plays later, Acklin found a wide-open Ben Riner for a 48-yard touchdown at the 8:56 mark. Riner’s PAT tied the game at 7, but Russellville scored 14 unanswered points to take a 21-7 lead into halftime.
Riner kicked a 46-yard field goal at the 8:13 mark in the third to cut the deficit to 21-10. However, an 11-yard touchdown pass from Hughes to Matt Lutz and an 18-yard field goal by Hocker kept the Cats from getting much momentum.
"They were clicking tonight," Ashcraft said of the Cyclones. "We tried some different coverages on them, but we just couldn’t find a way to stop them."
The Cats’ final score came when Acklin — who rushed 20 times for 136 yards — scored from 4 yards out with 5:58 left. Riner’s PAT put the finishing touches on the scoring.
Still, the Cyclones were too much for these Cats.
"Any win in this league feels good," Holt said. "When you can do that against Conway, that’s always good."
Now Conway must turn its attention to Catholic next Thursday in a game that will likely determine the fifth and sixth seeds, as both teams have four conference losses. But Ashcraft knows there’s no time to mope around after the latest defeat.
"We’ve got to keep our heads up and keep battling and find a way to beat Catholic," Ashcraft said.