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A classic Battle of the Ravine

At the end of three quarters, it was a rout.

Henderson 41, Ouachita 17.

There had been a full house at the start of the game on a cloudy, warm, windy afternoon in Arkadelphia. But as the final 15 minutes of action began, Ouachita fans were streaming out of A.U. Williams Field by the hundreds.

I was broadcasting the game on the seven radio stations that make up the Ouachita Football Network — one of the largest radio networks in NCAA Division II, I’m proud to say — and remember thinking that the Tigers had simply run out of gas after a grueling season.

This was, after all, their 10th consecutive week to play without an open date. It was only their fourth game at home. They had played six road games in an eight-week period, going 5-1 in those road games with the only loss coming to what eventually would become the top-ranked team in Division II, Delta State.

They had won six consecutive Great American Conference games to secure the first football championship in the history of the conference. They had overachieved, and they were tired.

I didn’t mention any of these thoughts on the air because I never like to sound as if I’m making excuses. Henderson was playing well and deserved the credit. With Ouachita trailing by 24 points, I was determined to plug on through the fourth quarter and be happy with the Tigers’ 7-3 season.

This was my 41st Battle of the Ravine to attend and my 24th to broadcast on the radio. So I should have known that strange things can happen when the two Arkadelphia schools play.

With the game seemingly out of reach, Ouachita begins a drive at its 20 following a punt into the end zone. There’s 2:47 remaining in the third quarter.

By the time the fourth quarter begins, the Tigers have a first-and-10 at the Henderson 13. A nine-play drive ends with a six-yard touchdown pass from Casey Cooper to Brett Reece. A two-point conversion attempt fails.

Henderson still leads comfortably, 41-23, with 13:00 remaining.

The Reddies pick up one first down before being forced to punt.

Ouachita starts 70 yards away this time and covers those 70 yards in just four plays. The touchdown comes on a Cooper pass of seven yards to his talented senior tight end, Phillip Supernaw. The point after attempt is good.

Henderson 41, Ouachita 30. The clock shows 9:49. It’s getting a bit more interesting, though the Reddies still have a two-possession lead and an offense that has moved the ball easily for most of the afternoon.

Henderson drives to the Ouachita 28, but quarterback Kevin Rodgers is sacked for a loss of 12 yards on fourth-and-12.

The Tigers thus begin their next drive 60 yards away from the promised land.

The A.U. Williams Field clock is down to 6:25.

Ouachita moves 60 yards in eight plays with sophomore tailback Chris Rycraw from Bryant scoring from 12 yards out. The Tigers go for two in an attempt to pull within a field goal of tying the game, but Cooper’s pass into the end zone is incomplete.

It’s now Henderson 41, Ouachita 36.

There’s 3:47 on the clock.

Things really begin to get tense at this point. Ouachita kicks deep. Elliot Hebert returns the kick. He is hit by Jackson Guerra and fumbles. Ouachita’s freshman kicker, Ryan Newsom, recovers the fumble.

Trailing by only five points with plenty of time left, Ouachita has the ball 29 yards away.

Cooper passes to Travis Anderson for two yards, and then the quarterback keeps it to the 19.

First down in the red zone.

Cooper passes incomplete on first down.

On second down, he passes to Anderson for five yards. It’s third-and-five.

Cooper’s third-down pass is incomplete. His fourth-down pass is also incomplete with Jeremy Williams defending for Henderson.

Ball back to Henderson. Only 2:15 remains. One first down will do it.

Not so fast, my friend.

Kevin Nichols loses a yard on first down. Ouachita calls a timeout with 2:09 remaining.

Turell Williams loses another yard on second down. It’s third-and-12.

Quarterback Kevin Rodgers rushes for six yards. It’s fourth-and-six.

Christian Latoof comes on to punt, and his kick goes out of bounds at the Ouachita 47. 

The Tigers are 53 yards away. They have 43 seconds to work.

Cooper passes to Rycraw for 13 yards and then spikes the ball to stop the clock. They’re 40 yards away.

Cooper’s pass to Brett Reece is incomplete. It’s third-and-10. But then Cooper finds Reece across the middle for a 29-yard gain.

Ouachita is 11 yards away. A penalty on Henderson moves the ball to the six.

Two incompletions follow.

On third-and-five from the six, Cooper hits Reece at the one. The tension in the stadium is almost palpable.

Cooper’s first-and-goal pass to Reece in the end zone is broken up by Chuck Obi.

Wait. There’s half a second left. Ouachita will have one more play from a yard away to win or lose the 85th Battle of the Ravine.

Henderson uses a timeout to get its defense set.

I’m looking at the written play-by-play sheet as I compose this post. Much of those final few minutes of action are now a blur in my mind. I was concentrating so intently on the broadcast that there are things I just don’t remember. I do remember silently telling myself to remain composed, to calmly relay to listeners what was setting up to be among the classic endings of any college football game ever played in Arkansas.

Let me just say it: This is the greatest small college football rivalry in America. They had played 84 previous games, dating back to 1895. Amazingly, the series was tied 39-39-6 after all those decades.

The next play will determine which school leads the series.

I’ve been fortunate enough to cover everything from the Super Bowl to the Kentucky Derby in my newspaper career, and I can tell you that this is as intense a sports moment as I can remember.

Everyone in the stadium is standing (I wonder how those people who left at the end of the third quarter feel now).

Cooper gives the ball to Rycraw, and he goes right. The running back puts his head down, and a collision occurs at the goal line.

Watching through my binoculars, it appears to me that the ball has crossed the goal.

The touchdown signal never comes.

Henderson holds on to win a classic by five points. The Reddie players and their supporters storm the field as those on the Ouachita side stand in stunned disbelief.

Ouachita had almost come from 24 down in the fourth quarter to win 42-41. Yes, the Ouachita faithful long will claim that Rycraw scored on that last play.

Sour grapes, the Reddies will respond. Whiners, they’ll say.

There are no television replays at the Division II level, you see. And in a weird way, the controversy that surrounds that final play will only add to the mystique of this treasured Arkansas tradition.

In Arkadelphia, where they talk about past Battles of the Ravine for 365 days a year, that play will be debated over dinner tables for decades to come.

On Sunday night, still a bit numb from the game I had called on the radio the previous day, I watched the excellent ESPN documentary on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. Having attended the Iron Bowl four times through the years, I’ve always believed Alabama-Auburn to be the top major college football rivalry in the country. It’s a gridiron civil war, an event that divides families.

Having grown up in Arkadelphia, I can tell you that Ouachita vs. Henderson is our state’s mini version of Alabama-Auburn. Just as in Alabama, families are split. The interim president at Henderson, for example, is married to the registrar at Ouachita.

That’s the thing that makes it so fun.

I was glad to be in Arkadelphia on Saturday as the national media continued to focus on the child sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the once proud football program at Penn State. There’s just something more pure about football at the Division II level.

Here’s how a feature article in Touchdown Illustrated, a publication distributed during football games at colleges and universities across the country, put it last year: “There is a small town in southern Arkansas where two rivers meet, with a highly traveled scenic highway and two institutions of higher learning within a stone’s throw of one another. This town is Arkadelphia, Ark., and one day each year it plays host to the most unique sporting event in intercollegiate athletics.”

Yes, a national publication called the Battle of the Ravine “the most unique sporting event” in all of college sports.

Growing up a block from A.U. Williams Field with a father who had been a football star at Ouachita, the day of the Battle of the Ravine was as big as Christmas at my house.

Harvard began playing Yale in 1875 in what’s known simply as The Game.

Amherst has been playing Williams since 1884 in what’s called the Biggest Little Game in America.

Army has been playing Navy since 1890.

Alabama has been playing Auburn since 1893.

Ouachita has been playing Henderson since 1895.

The Battle of the Ravine is older than rivalries such as Clemson vs. South Carolina, Ohio State vs. Michigan and Oklahoma vs. Texas.

Last year’s Touchdown Illustrated article ended this way: “The game won’t draw 100,000 fans, but rather 10,000, and each and every one will come away knowing they have been part of one of the most storied events in all of college football.”

It just doesn’t get any better in sports than what I witnessed in the fourth quarter Saturday.

In a state that’s painted Razorback red this time each year, the Battle of the Ravine has never received the attention it deserves. It’s a rivalry all Arkansans should be proud to call their own.

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