Headed into last Friday’s final regular season game against Hazen, the Palestine-Wheatley Patriots had absolutely nothing to lose.
Friday’s first-round state playoff home game for the Patriots has a much different feel.
Hosting the Mountain Pine Red Devils in the first home playoff game since the 2004 season, the No. 3 seeded Patriots are playing for a victory and hoping that Salem can upset Hector.
If both things happen, the Patriots will host a second-round home game next week.
Salem is the No. 5 seed from the 3AA Conference, while Hector is the top seed from the 5AA. Past the first playoff round, the home field advantage goes to the advancing team with the higher seed.
Hector's 31-30 midseason win at midseason over Conway Christian eventually gave the team the 5AA’s top seed.
Salem's marquee wins came early in nonconference victories over 1-3A playoff qualifiers Mountain View and Yellville-Summit.
Palestine-Wheatley coach Carey Knowlton knows little about Mountain Pine except that the team has struggled the last few seasons finishing 0-10 in 2016 and winning a total of three games over the past six seasons. The last state playoff appearance for the Red Devils came in the 2010 season.
“I know Mountain Pine is located just south of Hot Springs and that the coaching staff is going to bring a good football team to our place Friday,” Knowlton said. “They have good skill kids, including the quarterback. From what we’ve seen they will operate from the Wing T offensive set, using some misdirection plays and they will throw in some option plays. They will play fundamental football.”
Mountain Pine sophomore quarterback Collin Smith has accounted for more than 1,100 tandem yards.
Knowlton believes the Patriots’ speed may be too much for Mountain Pine to handle.
“We have a ton of speed and we plan to spread things out and just do what we’ve been doing all year,” Knowlton said. “Defensively, against their Wing T, we are going to have be disciplined, play our position and our assignments. As long as all 11 of us take care of business we will be fine. We know they are one of those teams that only do just a few things, but we know they do those few things extremely well.”
The Patriots are coming into state playoffs following last Friday’s 45-0 loss to Hazen, the conference’s top seed into the playoffs.
Injury-wise, the Patriots are in “pretty good shape,” according to Knowlton.
“We have a couple kids banged up but we have been giving them some rest this week when we can,” Knowlton said. “Everybody, except Cameron Thrash who just had surgery, is good to go. And for a football team in week 11 of the season to be virtually injury-free is a big deal for a head coach.”
Friday’s playoff game begins at 7 p.m. at Patriot Field.