Basketball champ turns to football

By Shea Stewart Published August 25, 2013 at 5:00 a.m.
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Rusty Hubbard

Pottsville quarterback Michael Perry.

With about 11 seconds remaining in the 2013 Class 4A boys state championship basketball game, the Pine Bluff Dollarway Cardinals had the ball and an opportunity to tie the Pottsville Apaches, who were leading 53-50.

Then junior guard Michael Perry stepped in front of a Cardinal pass at midcourt and was fouled with nine seconds left. The 5-11, 175-pound Perry hit the first of two free throws, putting the Apaches up 54-50. Dollarway’s final three-point attempt bounced out of bounds as the game ended, and the Pottsville Apaches began celebrating in front of the 5,853 fans at Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum as the 27-6 Apaches earned their school’s first state basketball title.

Named tournament MVP, Perry finished the title tilt with a game-high 16 points, three rebounds, three assists and probably the largest steal in the history of the Apaches’ basketball program. On the season, Perry averaged 18 points and three steals per game, earning a spot on the All-Arkansas Preps Third Team.

But that was last year’s basketball team. Now, the 2013 football season is here, and Perry, a senior who enters his fourth year as the Apaches’ starting quarterback, and his Pottsville teammates have some unfinished business. The end of the 2012 Apache football season left a bitter taste in Pottsville’s mouth.

During a second-round matchup against the then 10-0 Prairie Grove Tigers, the Apaches, who were 10-1 at that point, led 28-12 at the start of the fourth quarter. Coming into the game, the stout Tiger defense was riding a wave of five consecutive shutouts, holding opponents to less than 155 total yards per game.

But behind Perry, who was a perfect five for five passing with two touchdowns, the Apaches, who came into the game averaging 40.7 points and 296 rushing yards per game, scored three third-quarter touchdowns. The Tigers scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and added another with about five minutes left in the game, but the Tigers’ 2-point conversion following the second touchdown failed, leaving the Apaches up 28-26 with minutes left.

A Tiger onside kick failed as well, and the Apaches had the ball at midfield. But with 2:38 left in the game and the ball at the Prairie Grove 43, the Apaches went for a first down on fourth and 3, hoping to seal a playoff road win. The play resulted in a turnover to the Tigers. Five plays later, Prairie Grove scored a touchdown on a short running play and won the game 34-28.

“I know last year has made us hungry,” Perry said. “We’re working hard for this to be our best season. But we also want to enjoy it.”

Perry returns as the leader of a high-octane Apache offense. Running the Dead T, the Apaches scored more than 33 points in all but two of their 12 games last season. Perry, who runs a 4.49 in the 40, rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also completed 55 of 93 attempts for 944 yards and seven touchdowns. (During his sophomore season, Perry ran for 1,600 yards, threw for 600 more and combined for 25 touchdowns running and passing.)

Perry is one of six starters returning for the Apaches on offense. Although Bryan Rust, who is entering his seventh season as the head coach of the Apaches, is concerned with the loss of skill-position players from the 2012 Apaches’ offense, he said the strengths of the 2013 team start with Perry at quarterback.

“He’s unbelievably smart,” Rust said. “He knows how to win. And he’s just a tremendous athlete.”

During Perry’s three previous seasons as quarterback, the Apaches have won consecutive conference championships and claimed 30 wins. (The playoffs have been unkind to the Apaches during this period, though. Beyond the loss last season, the Apaches were beaten by Pulaski Academy in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Class 4A playoffs and by Star City in the 2010 Class 4A quarterfinals.)

Offense is not the only side of the ball where Perry shines. Last season, Perry, who also plays safety on defense, made 75 tackles, intercepted five passes — returning two for touchdowns — and recovered two fumbles. Perry’s combined offensive and defensive numbers earned him a spot on the Arkansas Activities Association All-State football team for the second straight year.

Perry, who plans to choose football over basketball in college, has scholarship offers in football from Harding University and Ouachita Baptist University, and is talking to schools such as Memphis, Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe. On the college level, Perry expects to play receiver, cornerback or athlete. And Perry, who carries a 4.2 grade-point average, already knows what his major will be: “Mechanical engineering,” said Perry, who names math and science as his favorite subjects.

But before college comes Perry’s senior football season. The Apaches start the season Sept. 6 with a visit from Heber Springs, and the 2013 Apaches have some well-defined goals.

“We’re at the point now where we make it to the playoffs,” Rust said, “but we want to be prepared to win championships in the long run.”

Night cops reporter Shea Stewart can be reached at 501-378-3598 or sstewart@arkansasonline.com.

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