ELKINS -- Harding Academy will end its season for the fifth consecutive year in Little Rock playing for a state championship.
The Wildcats earned the right to play for the Class 4A state championship after beating Elkins 41-27 on Friday in a semifinal game at John Bunch Jr. Memorial Field. Harding Academy (14-0) advanced to face Rivercrest next Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium.
Harding Academy won three consecutive championships in Class 3A before losing to Malvern in the Class 4A final last year at War Memorial. The Wildcats will move up to the Class 5A ranks next season.
"It means everything," Harding Academy Coach Neil Evans said of his team's return to Little Rock after losing last year to Malvern. "These guys have worked so stinking hard. They love each other, they trust in the plans we give them, and it feels really good for them to be rewarded."
Junior quarterback Owen Miller engineered an offense that piled up more than 500 total yards with his ability to run and throw. Elkins pulled to within 34-27 in the third quarter after falling behind 31-10 in the first half. But Elkins (13-1) fumbled in the Wildcats' territory and Harding Academy took advantage when Miller threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jack Citty to start the fourth quarter and increase its lead to 41-27.
Miller also contributed on defense when he intercepted one of two long passes in the fourth quarter when Elkins was trying desperately to catch up.
"To fight back all season after we lost last year at War Memorial, it means a lot," Miller said. "This is such a great group of guys and a coaching staff that's prepared us."
Elkins and Harding Academy both entered Friday's game undefeated and mostly unchallenged even in the playoffs. Harding Academy advanced to the semifinals with a 42-14 victory over Ashdown, while Elkins overpowered Central Arkansas Christian 53-15.
But Elkins was in trouble at the outset against Harding Academy, which piled up 446 yards in the first half to 230 for the Elks. Harding Academy's lead grew to 31-10 following a 44-yard field goal by Griffin Thomas with 5:55 left in the second quarter.
But just when Elkins' season appeared to be slipping away early, especially with dropped passes, the Elks began to hang on better to throws by Dizzy Dean, who completed touchdown passes of 6 yards to Da'Shawn Chairs and 51 yards to Landon Martin. But the drops returned in the fourth quarter.
Martin, who scored Elkins' first touchdown on a 25-yard pass from Dean, caught his second touchdown pass with 47 seconds left to provide Elkins with some momentum heading into the third quarter. But Elkins missed an opportunity to get even closer with a fumble after a completion, and Harding Academy took advantage with another touchdown to start the fourth quarter.
Harding Academy jumped to a 14-0 lead and the Wildcats barely missed a third touchdown when Miller fumbled into the end zone for a touchback after reaching the Elkins 3. The Elks picked up the pace after a slow start and put together three touchdowns and a field goal by Dawson Mallis to stay in the game after two quarters.