Francis collects MVP hardware — twice

By Donna Stephens Originally Published April 7, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 5, 2013 at 1:31 p.m.
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Harding Academy’s Will Francis, right, excelled on both the basketball court and football field. His efforts led to him being named the Most Valuable Player for both sports as the Wildcats captured a pair of titles. Francis is just the second player in Arkansas history to win the double honor.

— While most high school athletes dream of winning a state championship and an MVP award, Will Francis has the rare opportunity to compare a bucketful of such honors.

Thus far in his senior year, Francis, 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, has led Harding Academy to Class 3A state titles in both football, under coach Roddy Mote, and basketball, under Will’s father, Brad Francis. Will was also voted the MVP of each championship game.

The double honors are just the second in Arkansas history, after only Demoine Brown, who achieved the same feat in 2010-11 when he led Rivercrest to Class 3A state titles in football, basketball and track and field, and earned MVP honors in all three.

“Will has been around athletics and competition his whole life, and the big stage doesn’t seem to bother him,” Brad Francis said. “It doesn’t seem any different than any other time. Obviously, you never know what’s going to happen in those situations, but he seems to handle them very well, and that helps the other players to be calm as well.

“He’s been in those situations from an early age with baseball and basketball, primarily, outside of the school season, growing and getting ready for the things that came his way this year. He handled them well.”

Will Francis, who had a 3.9 grade-point average, will play basketball for Harding University next year.

“You really can’t compare the two, but winning a state championship has always been a dream, especially with my dad,” the younger Francis said of his two major team accomplishments. “It’s very special, something we’ve talked about for years, and just to have that day and how it played out was pretty special, to experience it with him and a group of guys I’ve been with since fifth grade.”

Last fall, the quarterback Francis directed the Wildcats to a perfect 14-0 record. In the championship game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, he hit Caleb Spears for a 10-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left to secure the 49-45 win over Glen Rose. For the game, Francis completed 35 of 48 passes for 499 yards and four touchdowns and added a 1-yard TD run.

During basketball season, Francis made 179 of 345 field goals and 71 of 103 free throws to average a team-best 18.6 points per game. He also averaged 8 rebounds. 4.6 assists, 3.6 steals and .7 blocks.

“People always ask me which one’s better, and of course you can’t really pick one that’s better,” Francis said. “Obviously with football, just the run we had in the playoffs, the different games that we had to fight back, being down, with the game on the line.

“We had lost a lot of seniors who helped us last year, and I don’t know if anybody really saw it coming, so that was really special.”

When he was a sophomore, Francis and the Wildcats lost to Brown and Rivercrest in the championship game. Last year, they fell to Charleston in the quarterfinals.

“It was neat to go back to War Memorial and redeem yourself,” he said. “I don’t think people expected our senior class, my group, to do this well, but we did a great job of sticking together for the whole thing and surprising some people.”

Mote, the football coach, said Francis’ importance to the team could not be overstated.

“He competes at a very high level,” Mote said. “However, it’s the way he handles himself off the field that really meant the most to us. He has such a humble and energetic spirit about him. When you put that kind of spirit and performance together, it’s very powerful and significant to your football team.

For the season, Francis completed 74 percent of his passes (293 of 394) for 4,223 yards and 42 touchdowns, but he downplayed those numbers.

“Stats don’t mean anything, but we played 14 games, and if you play that many, you’re going to get a few stats, as many times as we throw the football,” he said. “But you can’t have those without help. People say this group of receivers was the best they’ve seen in a long time to be able to catch the ball, and strong and very quick, all of them, which helps make my job a lot easier.

“Our offensive line averages about 200 pounds, and that’s not very big, so to do what we did, you’ve got to be working pretty hard. To have the season that we did, that speaks to how hard our offensive line worked all year.”

Francis said he has become a better basketball scorer in the last couple of years.

“I played wherever we needed me, but one thing that helped me was [classmate Locke] Adair stepped up and took some of the pressure off me, scoringwise, and that let me do some other things like rebounding,” Francis said, referring to Adair’s 16.4 scoring average. “Hunter Gentry also came on late [to average 6.2 ppg]. Both of those guys haven’t really been scorers until this year, but we knew we’d have to do that for us to make a deep run.”

Francis’ humble attitude reflects the school’s mission, Athletic Director Mike Keese said.

“We are blessed to have athletes who are focused and are good at passing and receiving a football, tackling an opponent and rebounding missed shots,” Keese said. “They really are better, though, at keeping their focus on Christ and passing compliments to others, receiving praise with humility, tackling other’s problems and helping them rebound from their struggles. Christ was about relationships, putting others ahead of himself. We want them realizing it’s not about this life only; it’s about “where are you going to spend eternity?”

Francis said basketball would probably get the nod as his favorite sport, “just from the standpoint of growing up and being with my dad in the gym all the time,” but he did attend the University of Arkansas football camp, although he reported no resulting offers to play college football.

“So as the year went on, I saw what God was calling me to do — go across the street to play basketball at Harding [University],” Francis said.

His mother, Leslie, is an adjunct instructor at HU, so the close family ties will continue.

Francis also drew basketball interest from Arkansas State University and Southeast Missouri State University.

He said he would probably major in math and eventually follow the family tradition of coaching.

But before that, there’s baseball season — and the possibility of hitting the trifecta of team and individual glory.

Harding Academy bowed out in the first round of the baseball regional last year.

“We’re going to try,” Francis said. “Obviously, it’s going to be tough, but that’s another goal we’re going to try to accomplish. We’ll try to make another run for it.”

The Wildcats will host the Class 3A State Baseball Tournament in May.

With the year they’ve had, don’t bet against them.

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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