Highland finally met its match. Ozark used a similar passing style, running game and defense as the Rebels, and the Hillbillies held off Highland, 28-25, in the semifinals of the Class 4A state playoffs.
Ozark had about 60 more yards of offense. Each team had an interception, but Highland also had a fumble. Highland and Ozark both scored four touchdowns, but where the Hillbillies' Tripp White was perfect on point-after attempts, Highland missed two PATs and failed on a two-point conversion.
Ozark will now face Stuttgart in the 4A finals on Saturday, Dec. 8, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
"That's just it," Highland Coach Spencer Hill said. "If you are going to win a state championship, you're going to have to do the little things better, and we did not tonight. Too many penalties. Too many costly turnovers on our side of the field, and two missed extra points. Too many mistakes."
Appearing in their first home semifinal since the 1981 championship season, the standing-room crowd was treated to a hyper student section dressed in Rebel attire and blowing vuvuzelas. Rebel hand towels were provided to the home crowd. The game ball was delivered, thanks to Student Council President E.B. Barnes, by an Air Evac helicopter 20 minutes before kickoff.
Getting the ball on offense first, Highland didn't disappoint the pumped up crowd, putting together a 12-play, 65-yard drive that concluded with a Jordan Brewer seven-yard touchdown. Long snapper Quinton Maag's snap landed next to holder Austin Himschoot's knee, but he was able to get it on the tee. However, Ethan Hoppe's kick sailed just wide right leaving the initial score at 6-0 Rebels.
On the drive, quarterback Sterling Stowers rushed for a 10-yard gain on third-and-nine, and connected with Michael Copeland on fourth-and-four for 13-yards to keep the drive alive.
Ozark answered quickly using only six-plays to go 59-yards for a Toby Richard 26-yard TD, and a 7-6 lead with 6:44 left in the opening period.
Even with a 10-yard gain on a Stowers to Avery Johnson pass on third down, Highland was forced to punt.
Senior linebacker Carr Hill got the ball back for the Rebels when he wrapped up quarterback Jonathan McKenzie short of the first down at the Highland 26.
The Reb offense overcame two holding penalties for a chance for another score, but, on Brewer's 17-yard rush, he fumbled the ball trying to leap into the end zone over a Hillbilly defender. Although it appeared the ball was knocked out of the end zone by an Ozark player scrambling with Brewer for the ball, the Hillbillies were awarded the ball at the Ozark 20 on the touchback.
Ozark was not able to turn the turnover into points, as they were forced to punt after one first down. However, on their next drive, they traveled 51 yards on eight plays for a McKenzie one-yard rush and a 14-6 advantage.
The Rebels responded as Johnson picked up 16 yards on the ground and another 17 on a pass from Stowers. A personal foul on Ozark kept things going. Stowers hit Copeland for a 14-yard gain to the one-yard line, and he finished it off with a push behind center for the touchdown. Stower's two-point conversion attempt failed, but the score was cut to 14-12 going into halftime.
The Reb defense showed its muscle again when it stopped big running back Bubba Elder short of a first down on the Hillbillies' first drive of the second half.
Stower's pass into tight coverage was intercepted by Shae Kelly at the Highland 35 and returned to the 11. It only took one play for Ozark to capitalize, with Elder taking the pitch in for the score and a 21-12 lead.
The two teams exchanged punts, but Highland used a 25-yard scamper by Brewer to setup a Stowers to Hoppe one-yard slant pass in the end zone. Hoppe's PAT bounced solidly off the right upright to keep the score at 21-18.
Junior Rebel linebacker Shawn Young intercepted a McKenzie pass on third down at midfield, and he returned it to the Ozark 28.
Stowers completed the screen pass to Brewer for a 15-yard gain. Brewer also squirted through for two-yards to get a new set of downs at the two-yard line, before blasting in for the TD. Hoppe's point-after attempt was straight down the middle to give Highland a 25-21 lead with 10 minutes left in the game.
"That's the character of this team," Hill said. "I've got a tough group of boys. We knew we could overcome some adversity and we did tonight. I'm very proud of that."
Hoppe's kickoff was taken at the three by Brandon Brokeshoulder, and returned to the Hillbilly 24 to start a 12-play, 76-yard drive for the game's final score. Highland's defense couldn't stop a third-and-one rush, a third-and-six scramble, or a fourth-and-one run all by quarterback McKenzie. McKenzie finished off the drive stepping in untouched from one-yard out with five minutes left on the clock.
White's kickoff landed at the Highland 33 without going out of bounds, and the Rebels had to fight in a pile to keep possession of the ball.
Then, the Reb offense started the drive with a false start penalty. Brewer rushed for two-yards, but Stowers lost four on a sweep. Copeland caught a 13-yard Stowers pass to make it fourth-and-four. Johnson took the swing pass along the sideline and appeared to stick the ball out for the first down, but was ruled out of bounds short of the first down.
Ozark used 10-plays to basically chew up the rest of the three plus minutes on the clock.
"It's one of the proudest things for me to be able to coach this team," Hill said. "Not for all of the wins necessarily, but just for the character of the boys. How they play like a champion, and how they are very unselfish. This is the most unselfish team I've ever been around."
Highland (13-1, 7-0, 3-1) was led by Brewer with 94 yards on 17 carries. Stowers was 12-of-20 passing for 151 yards, and added 16 carries for 50 yards. Johnson rushed five times for 37 yards, and had five receptions for 56 yards.
The 2013 Rebels will lose 19 seniors from this squad, but many juniors and sophomores saw significant playing time this year. Also, freshman from the undefeated junior high team will move up, allowing Highland to once again battle for a conference championship.