Clinton/Heber Springs rivalry about family, fun

by Mark Oliver

One of the most exciting events to watch in Central Arkansas is Clinton and Heber Springs facing off under the Friday night lights each fall. It’s a huge rivalry game that the entire community of each city comes out to see.

However, for Clinton senior Hunter Blanton, the rivalry is much more than just a game — it’s a family affair.  

“My dad grew up playing football for Heber Springs,” Blanton said. “He always tells me stories about it. However, when I was younger, my dad got a job in Clinton, so we moved here and I started playing football for Clinton.”

Though his father’s stories of playing football inspired him to begin football in fourth grade, Blanton had additional motivation to join the Yellowjackets — a cousin of the same age was suiting up for Heber Springs.

“My cousin (Jordan Hatsell) is in the same grade as me and plays for Heber Springs now,” Blanton said. “When he joined the team there, I felt that I had to stand up for my town and take the field over here. It’s been a fun rivalry every year.”

Blanton is a member of the 2014 501 Football Team — 24 players representing all 11 counties of the 501. The team boasts the best the 501 has to offer both on and off the field. He was nominated by his coach, Chris Dufrene.

“I expect Hunter to have a great senior year,” Dufrene said. “He always has a positive attitude on and off the field, and I believe that he will be a big contributor on offense, defense and special teams.”

Although the rivalry had been dominated by Heber Springs in recent years, Clinton finally broke a seven-game losing streak last season, topping the Panthers for the first time since 2005, 35-33.

“Last year, it came down to us and Heber Springs for the final playoff spot in the conference,” Blanton said. “Whoever won the game would go to the playoffs, so it made the win even bigger for us. Tears were shed.”

Hunter Blanton. (Diana Cantey photo)

According to Blanton, the worst part about facing off against his cousin is the fact that only one of them can celebrate a victory.

“Win or lose, I always dread the pictures after the Heber Springs game,” Blanton said. “One of us is trying to give a high five for winning while the other is hanging his head. It has always been a rivalry between us.”

With the win, Clinton advanced to the Class 4A state playoffs. However, the Yellowjackets were bounced in the first round by Booneville, 42-13. With a new season on the horizon, Blanton says 2014 is all about improvement.

“This season, we really want to go farther than last year,” Blanton said. “I feel like I’ve really stepped up and have been working hard this year. Over the summer, Coach Dufrene told us he wants us to still be practicing and playing after Thanksgiving. It’s a good goal for us.”

“Hunter plays very aggressive between the whistles and does not ever lose his composure,” Dufrene said. “He has great work ethic, a big heart, and is very coachable and unselfish. He puts the team before himself.”

This year, Clinton moves to the 4-4A conference and looks to improve on its four-win season from a year ago. Even though Heber Springs won’t be a conference opponent for the Yellowjackets this year, Blanton assures that the rivalry will not lose its luster.

“We’re both still in Class 4A, but we changed conferences,” Blanton said. “We open the season with a nonconference game against each other this year, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

In addition to football, Blanton participates in track and field. He is also active in Fellowship of Christian Athletes and FCCLA at Clinton High School and participates in the youth group at Pee Dee Baptist Church.

“Off the field, Hunter is a good student,” Dufrene said. “He is liked by the students and administration and has great character and integrity.”