By Kyle Wescott, Senior Writer for MyWSports.com
Special Contributor for the Women’s Football Alliance
(Photos by Kyle Wescott)
The Division 3 championship game pitted two teams that were fighting for the trophy in the memory of fallen teammates. Full of heart and passion for the game, neither team quit – nor slowed down – as the players battled for 60 minutes while the temperature at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA climbed to a high of 88 degrees.
The Wildcats were playing for teammate #95 Kelsey Goode, who passed away after a car accident. The Orlando Anarchy were playing for former player #38 Jahqui Sevills, who also passed away due to a car accident and also for Assistant Coach Cory Connell, who was killed in the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June 2016.
As was the story of the Arkansas Wildcats all season long, the team fielded a very small roster for the championship game: only 13 players. So, in addition to playing 60 minutes in the humid heat, they played both sides of the ball – offense and defense.
Orlando came out hot and capitalized on an Arkansas turnover when the snap went over Wildcats Quarterback Charmaine Alfred’s hands. Orlando capitalized and drove the short field, scoring on a pass from Quarterback Chandice Hunter to Wide Receiver Cabriel Duren.
The Wildcats answered on their next possession with a touchdown run by Kiara Vinson. The 2-point conversion try was no good, however, and the Anarchy held the 7-6 lead.
Orlando continued to mix up their running and passing games with great effectiveness on the next drive which ended when Hunter threw a jump ball to the left corner of the end zone that was, once again, pulled-in by Duren the touchdown.
Vinson again made it a game, breaking for a 44-yard touchdown run — her second longest touchdown run of the game. Arkansas, who went for two on every touchdown, made the conversion to tie the score at 14-14 to finish the first quarter.
Both defenses were on their game in the second quarter, with both teams trading defensive stops. However, back-to-back penalties on Arkansas soon gave Orlando a 1st-and-goal at the 3-yard line and QB Hunter took no chances as she tucked the ball away and took it into the end zone, putting Orlando back on top, 20-14.
The Wildcats responded by using their multi-dimensional running attack of Kiara Vinson and Raquel Williams. Vinson once again broke free for a long, 65-yard touchdown. After scoring the touchdown, Vinson laid on the Wildcats bench and was doused with water to stay cool. The Wildcats took the 22-20 lead into the locker room for halftime.
“We’ve got to stop her,” Orlando Head Coach Tony Chaves said at halftime about Vinson. “We’ve been talking about her all week and we’ve got to do a better job containing her.”
The Orlando plan seemed to work, as Vinson didn’t score another touchdown for the Wildcats. Raquel Williams, however, was just getting started as she opened the third quarter taking a screen pass 60 yards for a touchdown, making the score 28-20 for Arkansas.
Once again, it was the Orlando duo of Hunter-to-Duren that kept the game tight. Facing a 4th-and-goal from the 17, Hunter threw the ball to the back corner of the end zone where only Duren could catch it, and she did just that. The two-point conversion was no good, and the 3rd quarter ended with Orlando trailing, 28-26.
At the start of the 4th quarter, Williams struck again for Arkansas, this time with a 44-yard touchdown run. Vinson ran-in the 2-point conversion making it 36-26 in favor of the Wildcats.
Orlando QB Hunter threw a ball that was picked-off by Dekeidra Brewer on the next play and returned the ball for a touchdown, pushing the Arkansas lead to 42-26.
“I was in the right spot at the right time,” Brewer said, who was playing her first game back after she broke an ankle in the first game of the season. “I had to put my burners on because we were playing both ways and I was tired, but I knew my team needed me.”
Brewer followed-up that pick-six with two huge sacks, one knocking Hunter out of the game and one giving Orlando a 4th and 22 deep in their own territory. Arkansas shut down the drive, took over on downs, and closed-out the game.
Cabriel Duren carried the Anarchy on her back and after the game suggested that this team could be the start of something great for Orlando.
“Everyone on the team played with a lot of heart and always kept fighting for Cory and Jahqui and that helped us get to where we are,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that want to play now that they’ve started hearing about us, and we’re going to get involved and going to come back with bigger fight.”
Playing both sides of the ball is something that football fans regard as “old school,” but it’s just a regular game for the Arkansas Wildcats.
“We practice every weekend, some of us come from different states to practice and we just go hard,” Arkansas Wide Receiver Alona Alexander said about the team’s training and conditioning. “We had a really hard practice last Saturday, I don’t know if it was because of nerves or just getting to come (to Pittsburgh).”
“I’m so proud of this team,” said Arkansas Head Coach Earnest Dukes III. “We won some games with only 9 players on the field and they worked so hard all year and deserve this.”