Western, Bulldogs reach elite status in 3A

by Levi Gilbert

In Week 4 of the high school football season, the Bald Knob Bulldogs put the 3A on notice. The Bulldogs beat defending state champion Harding Academy — a perennially elite program and a rival for Bald Knob — proving that Bald Knob is for real this year.

“In my career at Bald Knob, we had never beaten Harding Academy until this year, and we ended Harding’s conference win streak of over 50 games,” said senior kicker/punter Dylan Western. “Defeating the defending state champions and our school’s rival gives us boosted confidence going into the rest of 2-3A conference play . . . It’s almost impossible to explain how big the victory over Harding Academy was for our team.

“Beating them is a morale and confidence booster for our entire team and the community supporting us. This victory puts a huge target on our program as the team to beat, which I think is going to force us to work harder and be even better . . . Although it was a much needed win, there is still lots of room for improvement, and we cannot be satisfied.”

Western was selected to this year’s 501 Football Team — 26 players representing all 11 counties of the 501. The team, sponsored by First Service Bank and First Security Bank, boasts the best the 501 has to offer both on and off the field. Western was nominated by his head coach, Randy Johnston.

“Dylan is a great leader for us on and off the field,” Johnston wrote in his nomination. “He’s one of the hardest working kids I have been around. Dylan is a great example in the classroom with a 4.14 GPA. He is also a good role model for our younger athletes. I look for Dylan to have a big year this year. He kicks PATs, field goals and punts and has done a very good job at it the last two seasons. I look for him to be even more confident in himself and his team this year.

“Dylan is one of the kids that helps bring a team together. Leading by example both on the field and in the classroom, I look for him to be a big key in keeping us on track and focused in 2016.”

Western got a late start in football as he and his twin brother grew up as soccer kids.

“I started playing football in the seventh grade and quit my eighth grade year because I didn’t really understand the game,” Western said. “After sitting out my eighth grade year, I regretted not playing and got back on the team in ninth grade and have played and started ever since. My favorite football memory is probably when I moved up to senior high as a ninth-grader after our junior high season was over.

“My very first game in senior high our starting kicker missed a few extra point attempts, so my coach let me go in to kick a field goal with two seconds left on the clock. I made it, which put us three points over the opposing Rose Bud Ramblers going into halftime. My very first play as a high school kicker I made a 25-yard field goal to put the team in the lead.”

Over the course of his high school football career, Western has also played in the defensive secondary and on offense, in addition to his kicking duties. But this year is different for Western. Adversity has removed him from all position play other than kicking.

“Because a back injury prevents me from playing offense or defense for my team, my sole purpose is to punt and kick field goals,” Western said. “My goal is to miss as few field goals as I possibly can so that I won’t let my team down in crucial situations and punt well enough to give our defense good field position to stop the opposing offense while our offense is trying to gather its senses to make a drive. Another personal goal is to possibly kick for a college football team after this final year of high school.

“This [back injury] could have been a career ending injury, but I’ve fought through it and can at least keep kicking this season despite being on a strict no contact order.”

So far this season, Western has had a high percentage of made PATs, missing only two in more than 20 attempts. He’s converted every field goal opportunity he’s had and is averaging 45 yards per punt. He’s also kicked three touchbacks on kickoffs.

Western also participates in track and field for the Bulldogs. He’s a two-time indoor state champion, 2016 outdoor state champion and 2016 Meet of Champs champion — all in the high jump. Off the field, Western is a member of Student Council, Future Business Leaders of America, Beta Club, Spanish Club and Quiz Bowl.

“I am active in my youth group at Highway Church of Christ, and we frequently go to River City Ministries in Little Rock, which is a shelter for many homeless people around that area,” Western said. “They can go [there] to receive food, medical attention, one-on-one time with a pastor or simply a place to stay.”

This week the undefeated Bulldogs take on their next challenge in the 2-3A — the 3-1 high-flying Mayflower Eagles.

“The keys for success for Week 5 are to stop No. 3 (Deon Simmons) and No. 1 (Keon Simmons) of the Mayflower Eagles,” Western said. “These two players are almost always getting the ball on offense, and if given room to run, will take the ball to the house.

“As a team, our goal right now is to continue our undefeated streak throughout the remainder of conference play. After we succeed in this, our goal is to make it through the playoffs and end the streak our team has had of losing the first playoff game and hopefully get a shot at a state title.”

Western and the Bald Knob Bulldogs travel to the Mayflower Eagles this Friday, Sept. 30. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.