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story.lead_photo.caption Fayetteville Coach Bill Blankenship, who led Tulsa Union to three Oklahoma Class 6A state titles during a 14-year tenure, has the Bulldogs back in the Class 7A final in his first season. - Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette / JIMMY JONES

Fayetteville knows its way to Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.

The Bulldogs, though, will have a new leader with them as they get set to play in their third consecutive Class 7A state championship game.

Former University of Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship has the Bulldogs (11-1) in the championship game of the state's largest classification after they defeated 7A-West Conference rival Bentonville 46-21 on Friday night.

Fayetteville, the defending Class 7A state champions, will face 7A-Central champion North Little Rock (12-0) at 7 p.m. Friday at War Memorial Stadium. It's the Bulldogs' third consecutive appearance in the 7A final and seventh appearance since 2007.

When Blankenship first began working with the Bulldogs' program in June, he said he was an observer, letting the assistant coaches work with the team.

As Fayetteville heads into Friday's championship game, it's fair to say Blankenship is now more than an observer.

"It's as much of a relief as it is rewarding," said Blankenship, who replaced Daryl Patton, who led Fayetteville to four state championships (2007, 2011, 2012, 2015) and is now at Bauxite. "These guys have high expectations. Our players have been here. They've experienced it."

The relief, Blankenship explained, comes from having the Bulldogs buy into his philosophy of focusing on the 2016 season only, and not trying to win two consecutive state championships.

"I told them, 'You can put the cart before the horse if you're not careful,' " Blankenship said. "We really focused on trying to go 1-0 each week and we focused on that week. [I told the players] if we do that, then we can stack up them all up at the end and figure out how we did. They bought into that. They didn't start having those conversations about back-to-back."

Fayetteville has been led by senior quarterback Taylor Powell, a Wake Forest oral commitment. Powell has passed for 3,208 yards and 40 touchdowns this season and will be playing in his third state championship game in a row.

The Bulldogs started 3-0, but lost its first 7A-West game to Bentonville, 24-21. It was a wake-up call for Fayetteville, Blankenship said. Since the Bentonville loss Sept. 23, Fayetteville has won eight consecutive games.

"We were playing well with confidence before the Bentonville game," Blankenship said. "I think that loss [was a] realization that you're not just going to roll your hat out and be last year's team. There's going to be growth. If you don't grow, then we can't get back.

"They embraced it and went to work. We got better because we worked harder."

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Blankenship was one of the top high school coaches in Oklahoma before going to Tulsa as an assistant and as its head coach in 2007-2014. He coached teams to three Oklahoma Class 6A state championships (2002, 2004, 2005) at Tulsa Union High School.

On Friday, Blankenship has an opportunity to win a state championship in Arkansas.

"I've been very blessed in my life to get to do the things I've gotten to do," Blankenship said. "To be at a place like Fayetteville, we have the kids that give us a chance to get us here. I want to finish it, but I want to do it for these seniors. I really do. I want them to go out the way they deserve to go out."

Sports on 11/29/2016

Print Headline: State title remains trip worth making

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