ALMA -- The Alma Airedales were looking for someone to step up at wide receiver heading into this season after losing nearly 70 percent of their production from the position because of graduation.
Enter junior Grayson Bailey.
After a solid sophomore year, Bailey has provided just the spark Alma needed from the outside making big plays throughout the season while being the go-to target for first-year starting quarterback Landon Blair. Bailey leads the team with 44 catches for 756 yards with eight touchdowns.
"He is an electric player for us," Alma coach Doug Loughridge said of Bailey. "He has been our guy all season long, and I think is the second leading receiver in the 5A-West. He is a breakaway threat for us. We saw that early as a sophomore. But he has secured his role this season. He is a very talented player."
Bailey (6-foot-2, 174 pounds) showed early what he could do for the Airedales as a junior. In the opening game of the season against crosstown rival Van Buren, he had 134 yards on five catches including two touchdowns.
"It was a big confidence boost to start the season like that," Bailey said. "It's always nice to start the season with a big game. I wanted to go out there and produce for my teammates in a big game early."
Despite the big game early from Bailey, the season didn't start out as hoped for Alma (5-5) in nonconference play. The Airedales lost their initial three games of the season for the first time since 2007.
The offense was able to find success against Van Buren by scoring 33 points, but the unit scored just seven total points in the next two games against Springdale High and Russellville. Alma was outscored 116-40 in its three nonconference games.
Alma was able to find much more success after that.
The Airedales ended up closing out the season after the 0-3 start by winning five of their last seven games heading into Friday's first-round playoff matchup at Pulaski Academy (9-1). Alma was able to rattle off four consecutive wins to start conference play beating Vilonia, Farmington, Morrilton and Clarksville.
"We just kept on working," said senior safety Coltin Bowerman, who leads the team with over 100 tackles. "We knew if we did that good things would happen. We got those four wins in a row in conference play. We are in a similar position heading into this game. People counted us out all year. We'll keep working hard and see what happens."
Bailey said there was no doubt the team would be able to recover from the rough start that the program hasn't seen often in its history.
"A lot of people were down on us," Bailey said. "They didn't think we could bounce back from that start. We have. I'm proud of my teammates not getting down on themselves and keeping everybody up."
Bailey has been a big part of the turnaround. He has provided at least 80 or more receiving yards or a touchdown in all but one of Alma's wins this season.
"Bailey is a very good athlete," senior running back Keegan Rosebeary said. "He gives us room to think of different schemes we can do with the ball. I honestly couldn't be more proud of him and the season he has had. He makes big players you don't see many people do. He is a monster and can do whatever is needed for the team."
Bailey, who also plays some safety for Alma, helped cap the 5-2 conference run with his best game of the season in a 40-3 victory on the road against Huntsville last week. He caught seven passes for a season-high 139 yards with three touchdowns to close out the regular season.
"He has had some huge games for us this season," Loughridge said. "He keeps coming to work good or bad. He is always competing out there. He is very selfless and does a great job blocking. He will compete out on the edge for us."
Establishing the passing attack with Blair finding Bailey often has been a key to opening up Rosebeary and the running game, Loughridge said. Rosebeary finished the regular season with 732 yards and eight touchdowns on 127 carries for Alma.
"He has helped keep things balanced," Loughridge said. "We have been able to run it this year. We don't have a quarterback that runs that much this season. It helps that Grayson has been able to keep us balanced."
Loughridge knows it will be a tough task for Alma to extend its season on the road against Pulaski Academy, but it wasn't easy to overcome a 0-3 start to the season either.
"We are going against the best," Loughridge said. "We know what they are and what they represent. Our kids are ready and eager to match that challenge. It's us against the world. The only people who believe we can beat them are in Alma. And even half of those don't."
Goblins have everything for now
Harrison closed out the regular season with the two things it wanted -- an unbeaten record and a 5A-West Conference championship.
Those two accomplishments, however, are now the past as the Goblins (10-0) turn their attention to the Class 5A state playoffs with hopes of winning their first title since 1999.
"Everybody's now the same," Harrison coach Joel Wells said. "Everybody's now 0-0. You must win to advance, or lose and go home.
"Any time you start a playoff season, everything steps up a notch in intensity, practice and preparation for everybody involved. I don't think it will be an issue for getting our kids ready to play."
Harrison begins the playoffs with a first-round game at home against White Hall, the No. 4 seed from the 5A-Central. The two teams have only played twice since 2001, and White Hall won the last game with a 37-16 decision in 2006.
The Bulldogs (5-4) enter the game on a three-game losing skid, including a 63-21 loss to defending state champion Pulaski Academy. White Hall, however, has Wells' full attention.
"The Central is the toughest league right now, with the way it looks," Wells said. "They look very athletic and will be a very big challenge for us. They stand out for having a lot of speed and quickness. I think they look a lot like Morrilton as far as their athleticism, and they are a lot like Hot Springs Lakeside, which we played a year ago.
"Our focus is going to be to play great defense, like we have all year long, and take care of the football."
-- Henry Apple • @NWAHenry
Preps Sports on 11/09/2018
Print Headline: CLASS 5A FOOTBALL Bailey makes most of his chance to shine