After opening the conference slate sandwiching losses against two of the state's top 4A powers around a victory over Lonoke, the Newport Greyhounds traveled to Cleburne County to take on the Heber Springs as they looked to get back into the win column.
Coach Jeromy Poole had spent part of his teaching time with his young team urging them to not let the close losses at Dollarway and Stuttgart "haunt them for the rest of the season."
In this Halloween season, they laid waste to those ghosts early Friday night as they built an 18-0 first quarter lead on their way to a 40-24 win.
"They are incredibly well-coached and they play very hard. My hat goes off to Coach (Steve) Janski," Poole explained.
"When you look at the job that he has done here with this program. When he came in, this program was practically non-existent - as far as football goes - and he has built it into a conference championship contender. And for us to come up here, to their place, and beat them really says a lot about our kids."
Despite building an 18-0 lead at the end of the first 12 minutes, the Panthers battled Newport the rest of the way, cutting the lead to eight, 24-16, early in the third quarter.
However, the Greyhounds put together an impressive 20-play, 62-yard drive that ran out the third quarter and carried into the fourth quarter. It was only the second Newport possession of the third quarter and third for both teams combined.
After a holding penalty forced a 4th and 13 at the Heber Springs 18-yard line, a leaping catch by Markus Neal to the Panther 5-yard line kept the drive alive.
The importance of the drive was not lost on Offensive Coordinator Don Harrison.
"Markus Neal's fourth down catch was phenomenal. For all of the great things that the defense did tonight, that drive took a long time off the clock and let everything settle down."
He continued, "It was fourth down and we had to have it and Markus Neal ran the perfect route. Gunnar (Bullard) threw it a little late but he made sure, he settled and caught the ball and that was a huge play for us on fourth down. It kept the drive going and we scored later."
Kristen Crite topped off the drive in the corner of the end zone as he corralled Bullard's tipped pass as he fell to the turf for a 32-16 lead after Carl Turner added the two-point conversion.
The Greyhounds put the game away on their next possession as Reid Johnson's fourth down sack stalled a drive at the Newport 11-yard line and Crite's twisting and turning, cutback run of 89-yards gave them a 40-18 lead with 7:18 to go in the game.
Heber Springs answered with a 24-yard touchdown pass with 5:15 remaining to cut the lead to the final margin 40-24.
Bullard's two big throws in the second half were the perfect ending to the sophomore quarterback's night, Harrison recalled.
"Out of everyone that really needed to bounce back Gunnar Bullard probably needed it more than anyone. He had a tough week last week and he knew it," the play-caller noted.
"He worked hard in practice this week and man, he had a great game. I don't know what his numbers were but he had a huge game. It was so good for Gunnar to have a game like this and show everyone 'okay, you want to load the box and stop Carl, we have got some guys that can hurt you - 12s (Garrett Smith) not bad, 11s (Markus Neal) not bad, 6 (Kristen Crite) can catch the ball."
With the defense turning in three first half interceptions - one each by Johnson, Shufon Alcorn and Hunter Bowen - the Greyhound offense got a short field to work with and they had several players step up as the Panthers held freshman running back to 52 yards on 15 carries.
"As the season goes on, when you have a running back like Carl (Turner) that has rushed for almost 900 yards right now, people are going to key on him. When that happens we have to be able to throw the ball, which we were able to do tonight," Coach Poole said.
"Also, we have to have other guys make plays - which we have had all year - but it is even more important now for our other guys to step up and make plays. We have those playmakers, like Kristen (Crite) making that huge run. We have to have those types of plays."
Harrison agreed with the "Head Hound."
"He has to understand that people are going to start keying on him, they really are. They are going to get to the point where they are not going to let him carry the ball. He has to understand that. But, he is going to be alright."
The coaching staff pointed out the work of Crite, who led the Hounds with 129 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, as well as the offensive line as instrumental in Newport moving to 4-3 overall and more importantly 2-2 on the season.
However, the defensive unit - led by Poole - has shown steady improvement, especially over the last three games.
"Defensively, we are starting to understand the scheme better and better. Every now and then we have our moments where we lose focus and they hit us with a couple of big plays. But, that is nothing more than losing focus and that is something that is easy to fix," he explained.
"The defense gave us a short field to work with a couple of times and that was huge," Harrison added.
"Shufon Alcorn had a great game at corner. Our defense played great for us tonight. That is a good offense right there, a good, high-powered offense, very explosive, very potent."
Bullard, who was 10-15 passing for 145 yards and three scores, got his evening started on Newport's first possession with an 19-yard scoring pass to Smith. He found Crite on a 49-yard scoring pass on Newport's third possession of the night to push the lead to 18-0.
The two passes were perfect bookends for a 14-yard touchdown run by Deandre Elston on the second Greyhound possession.
Heber Springs added a 24-yard field goal midway through the second quarter to cut the lead to 18-3 before Crite's 23-yard run with 51:9 seconds remaining in the half pushed it to 24-3.
However, a 3-play, 57-yard drive by Heber Springs culminated with a 4-yard scoring run with 19:6 seconds to go for a 24-10 Newport advantage at intermission.
Crite led the offense on the ground with 129 yards on 12 carries. Turner's 52 yards were followed by Bullard with 54 yards on 6 totes. Elston added 20 yards - and a score - on 2 carries, while Denver Smith had 1 rush for 3 yards.
Smith led the receiving corps with 55 yards - and a score - on 3 catches while Crite had 3 for 52 yards and 2 touchdowns. Turner and Markus Neal had 1 catch each for 15 yards while Elston had 1 for 8.
Defensively, linebacker Stephen Neal had 10 tackles to lead the way. Khairan Stafford added 6 stops while defensive end Divante Armstrong chipped in with 5. Alcorn and Tim Brown had 4 stops each while Crite had 3. McCabe Cordell, Elston and Chris Grady had 2 tackles each as Will Bowen, Johnson and Maurice Killingsworth each had 1 stop.
Newport will host Clinton this week in a game which Poole expects to be a big test for his young Greyhounds.
"We have a big one next week. Clinton is the team that we up there last year and they didn't show any mercy. Coach (Chris) Dufrene does a great job. Their kids play so hard and they execute their offense and defense so well. We have to get our kids prepared mentally for the game and we just have to go out and play hard and take it to them," Poole explained.
"It is going to be a very tough game," he added, "We just want everyone to come out this week. We have a big home game and we are fighting for a home round playoff game and we want as many fans there as possible. The kids love seeing them in the stands. It is just great for our community and I just want to invite everyone out. It ought to be a great game."
Newport will host the Yellowjackets Friday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. at Greyhound Field.