PEA RIDGE — In times Pea Ridge needs a big play in tight games, Hayden Holtgrewe can often hear coach Stephen Neal yelling as much from the Blackhawks sideline.
With little time on the clock against Prairie Grove in Week 7 and the Tigers driving for a potential game-winning score, Holtgrewe picked up Neal’s message loud and clear. The two-way star recovered a Prairie Grove fumble with less than 2 minutes to play, sealing a 26-21 win and effectively ending the Tigers’ 25-game regular-season win streak.
“Is that big time enough for you, coach?” a jubilant Holtgrewe said coming off the field.
Holtgrewe admittedly loves playing on both sides of the ball. But more than that, he doesn’t like standing on the sidelines. Opposing teams, obviously, would prefer he did. Through 13 games this season, Holtgrewe’s 1,170 receiving yards, 72 catches and 13 touchdowns are all team highs.
Perhaps most impressive, though, has been Holtgrewe’s play throughout Pea Ridge’s last two playoff runs. As a junior, a three-catch, 49-yard game against Arkadelphia set in motion a string of strong playoff performances, and over the Blackhawks’ final four playoff games in 2016, Holtgrewe caught 20 passes for 320 yards and two scores.
This postseason has seen more of the same as he carries consecutive seven-catch games into tonight’s semifinal matchup with Arkadelphia. Asked if Holtgrewe is playing his best football of the season, Neal offered a unique viewpoint.
“I’ve said this to his face before: I don’t know when Hayden is not playing his best ball,” he said. “People talk about how certain kids don’t have a good game or have a bad game, and I’ve never seen Hayden have a bad game. He’s had some games that are better than others, but I’ve never seen him have a bad game.”
Dating back to the 2016 postseason, Holtgrewe has a touchdown in four straight playoff games, and the Badgers defense will be aiming to end that run. Arkadelphia (11-1) recorded four regular-season shutouts and has allowed more than eight points just three times this season.
After beating Arkadelphia 30-24 last year, Pea Ridge’s then-senior class predicted the schools would meet for the 2017 4A title. The group was one game off, but regardless, Holtgrewe is eager to face the Arkadelphia defense he’s heard so much about.
“I like playing against the best, and that kind of gets me pumped up more,” he said. “I think everybody out there knows Arkadelphia has a really good defense. So in practice the offense is yelling at each other, screaming and trying to build the intensity up. We think if we can put some points up on the board our defense is going to be able to make stops. It’ll be a tough test.”
As impressive as his numbers are, Holtgrewe is far from the Blackhawks’ only weapon. Running back Drew Winn (31 TD) surpassed the 2,000-yard mark on the ground two weeks ago, receiver Jordan Witcher has 10 scoring grabs this season and Jakota Sainsbury leads the charge at quarterback with 26 touchdown passes. With so many viable options, when others get rolling, everything opens up for Holtgrewe.
“Those two are just incredible athletes,” he said of Winn and Witcher. “A lot of the focus shifts to Drew and it opens up me and Jordan. And when Jordan starts making plays the focus moves over to Jordan. That makes us hard to stop.”
Following an emotional rivalry game win against Prairie Grove, Holtgrewe said the team felt largely unbeatable. Three weeks later it endured its first hiccup as Shiloh Christian upended the Blackhawks 17-14 to close the regular season.
The loss is the lone blemish on Pea Ridge’s record this season, and it serves as a reminder to bring energy and effort each Friday.
“I think it kind of humbled us,” Holtgrewe said. “I think it gave us a little spark to know that somebody can beat us if we don’t play our best ball on any night. We need to come out with the fire and intensity we did at the beginning of the season and like we did against Prairie Grove.”
The senior receiver remembers the community’s excitement and being brought to tears when the Blackhawks officially punched their ticket to Little Rock last season. But after falling to Warren in the finals a week later, there was unfinished business to tend to this year.
“It would be amazing to finally get the job done for this community because they come out and support us every single night win or lose, ask us how we’re doing,” he said. “As a team, that’s our No. 1 goal to get back to Little Rock. I think if we get back there we’ve got a good chance to win it.”