High school football in Arkansas is just days away, with games kicking off on Labor Day.
Kickoff classics and other early-starters are set for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, with the remaining full slate of games scheduled for the traditional Friday night kickoff. The Arkansas Activities Association has a handy composite schedule at: http://members.ahsaa.org/public/userfiles/fbsche13.pdf
Today, we’ll take a look at the Class 5A and Class 4A, the middle children in Arkansas’ absurd classification system.
1. Pulaski Academy – The Bruins are back atop the 5A rankings after a disappointing end to last season. PA steamrolled the competition in the 5A-Central, winning nine straight games before a stunning 40-21 loss at home to Batesville in the semifinals. Senior linebacker Tyler Colquitt (6-foot, 240 pounds) is a four-year starter and leader on defense, while also contributing in the offensive backfield. Coach Kevin Kelley’s iconoclastic approach continues to win over critics, and the Bruins won’t mess with success. Key games: Sept. 13 vs. Warren, Sept. 20 vs. West Memphis, Nov. 8 vs. Jacksonville
2. Camden Fairview – Buck James and the Cardinals reached the pinnacle in 2012, capturing the state title after coming up painfully short in 2009 and 2010. Matt Ollison (5-10, 175), MVP from the 28-10 victory over Batesville in the championship game, returns after throwing for more than 2,500 yards and 33 TDs. The Cardinals return five starters on each side of the ball, from a team that scored 40 or more points 11 times and shut out four opponents. A state title repeat could be in the cards. Key games: Sept. 20 at Warren, Oct. 4 vs. White Hall, Nov. 8 at Watson Chapel
3. Batesville – The Pioneers return six defensive starters from last season’s 10-4 squad. Batesville defeated both Greenbrier and Pulaski Academy in road playoff games before falling in the state championship game for the second straight year, this time to Camden Fairview. Linebacker Joey Rodriguez (5-10, 190) sparked the Pioneers’ playoff run when injuries forced him to play tailback, and he should contribute on both sides again. Key games: Oct. 11 at Forrest City, Oct. 8 vs. Wynne, Nov. 8 at Beebe.
4. Alma – The Airedales have struggled since the retirement of Frank Vines, and despite winning a playoff game last year, have a new coach in Doug Loughridge. Todd Dilbeck resigned at the end of the season, and Loughridge was brought in after a six-year run at Charleston that included two state titles. Alma has a dozen returning starter, including Evan Burris (5-10, 190) who pulls double duty – quarterback and linebacker. Key games: Oct. 4 at Morrilton, Oct. 25 vs. Vilonia, Nov. 8 vs. Shiloh Christian
5. Vilonia – Jim Stanley’s Eagles, long proponents of the Double Wing, gave opponents a different look in 2012, mixing in the spread, featuring a previously rare forward pass. That was in part due to quarterback Jared Willis (6-2, 180), who stepped in as a sophomore and successfully led the Eagles’ air attack. Vilonia won’t abandon its old ways – look for an occasional double-handoff—but talent at the skilled positions should make the offense explosive. If the Eagles can solidify in the trenches, they could make a run at the 5A-West title. Key games: Oct. 4 vs. Shiloh Christian, Oct. 25 at Alma, Nov. 8 vs. Greenbrier
1. Warren – The Lumberjacks’ quest to get back to the state championship level took another step in 2012, as they claimed their first conference title since 2009, falling to eventual state champ Stuttgart in the playoffs. Bo Hembree created a monster in Warren, with talent-laden teams posting big-win seasons. Big things are expected this season, with 19 starters back. Warren has a brutal non-conference schedule (Fayetteville, Pulaski Academy, Camden Fairview). Senior right guard Jhamal Bell (6-4, 290) anchors the line and is drawing interest from colleges. Key games: Sept. 2 vs. Fayetteville (at UA), Sept. 13 at Pulaski Academy, Nov. 1 at Hamburg
2. Pine Bluff Dollarway – The Cardinals return seven starters on each side of the ball from a team that shared the 2-4A conference crown in 2012. Under coach Cortez Lee, Dollarway has increased from 3 to 10 wins in the last four years. Senior guard Nicholas Woodford (6-foot, 270) powers an offensive line that propels a strong running game. This year’s squad could be the one to return Dollarway to greatness. Key games: Sept. 27 at Newport, Oct. 18 vs. Lonoke, Oct. 25 vs. Stuttgart
3. Nashville – After winning three straight state titles from 2005-07, coach Billy Dawson’s Scrappers have struggled to get past the quarterfinals in the playoffs. Nashville earned a share of the conference title last season, but fell in the playoffs in a shootout at Prairie Grove. Kyler Lawrence (6-1, 205) is a standout at linebacker, and figures to shine at running back this season. Key games: Sept. 20 at Watson Chapel, Sept. 27 at Arkadelphia, Oct. 18 vs. Ashdown
4. Booneville – Despite winning a share of the 4-4A conference title in 2012, the Bearcats suffered the indignity of having their season bookended by home losses to rival Ozark. They open with Ozark again, and have 15 starters back from last year’s 8-4 team. Senior quarterback Cody Harrell (6-foot, 190) is a legitimate running threat, and an effective passer, earning all-state honors in 2012. Back-to-back road games with Pottsville and Maumelle to close the season could very well decide the conference title. Key games: Sept. 6 at Ozark, Nov. 1 at Pottsville, Nov. 8 at Maumelle
5. Prairie Grove – The Tigers have never played for a state championship, and came just one game short last season, losing to Stuttgart in the semifinals. Long-time coach Danny Abshier will look to senior back Logan Bartholomew (5-9, 170), who boasts a 4.5 40 time. Prairie Grove should be the class of 4A teams in Northwest Arkansas. Key games: Sept. 20 at West Fork, Sept. 27 vs. Ozark, Oct. 4 at Farmington
In the coming days, look for the top five from Class 3A and Class 2A, where the schools are smaller but no less passionate for football.