There wasn't anything I read or wrote myself about high school football in Arkansas in August that didn't include Fayetteville vs. Bentonville as one of the top games of the year.
Well, the wait is almost over and there'll be plenty at stake when Bentonville and Fayetteville meet Friday at Harmon Field.
Bentonville (5-1, 3-0) and Fayetteville (4-2, 3-0) are the front-runners in the 7A-West Conference, where the Tigers have won 35 consecutive in league play. Both teams sputtered a bit last week before taking down winless opponents as expected to set up Friday's showdown. Bentonville dropped Rogers Heritage 49-14 while Fayetteville finally got going, 47-17, at Fort Smith Southside.
"For most of the game, they took it to us," Fayetteville coach Casey Dick said of the Mavericks.
That won't cut it against Bentonville, which hammered Fayetteville 59-14 a year ago. But Fayetteville is in a much better position to challenge the Tigers with quarterback Bladen Fike throwing to top receivers like Isaiah Sategna, Jalen Blackburn, and Dylan Kittell. Sategna caught 11 passes for 202 yards, including a 62-yard scoring play, against Southside. Sophomore Omar Murray, who provides a running threat the Bulldogs lacked earlier in the season, added 95 yards rushing.
Bentonville will counter with some of the stars who helped the Tigers to a 10-1 record last year, including 7-0 in the 7A-West. Few teams can match Bentonville's balanced attack with running back Josh Ficklin and quarterback Drew Wright throwing to top receivers like Chas Nimrod and Cooper Smith. Ficklin is among the state's leaders with over 900 yards rushing in only six games.
Fans from Fayetteville and Bentonville are sure to pack Harmon Field on Friday. But this game should be of interest to outsiders, especially fans of college football. Some of the athletes you'll see Friday you'll see soon on TV on Saturdays, including Sategna, who'll play football and run track at Oregon beginning next season.
No one in Arkansas knew much about Sategna when he took the field at Harmon Field against Bentonville two years ago. Sategna introduced himself when he got behind the Bentonville defense and caught an 80-yard pass for his first career touchdown with the Bulldogs. Touchdowns have become routine for Sategna, who took a short pass from Fike two weeks ago and went 65 yards for a score.
There's been plenty of other stars who've played in this game, including former Fayetteville linebacker Quade Mosier and former Bentonville linebacker Cole Joyce, who are now teammates at the University of Central Florida, where Gus Malzahn is the coach.
Bentonville and Fayetteville each stumbled at times while facing tough non-conference competition this year.
North Little Rock beat Fayetteville 14-7 largely because of two interceptions and a fumble into the end zone that resulted in a touchback. Bentonville, usually among the best at securing the football, committed six turnovers in a loss to Conway.
That was then, this is now.
While Friday's winner will take the inside track toward a conference championship, nothing will be decided this week. There's also the possibility the teams could meet again in the state playoffs, like in 2007 when Fayetteville beat Bentonville in the semifinals and won the Class 7A state championship after losing to the Tigers in conference play.
So, what's it going to be, folks?
There's plenty to do in Northwest Arkansas and the Razorbacks will face Auburn in a crucial SEC home game on Saturday. But I can't think of anything more appealing than starting the weekend off right by watching the stars come out at night at Harmon Field where Bentonville will meet Fayetteville.
Let the hype begin.