Friday, July 30, 2010

SPORTS>>Teams taking field with new coaches, key positions to fill

Leader sports editor

There’s no substitute for the action on the field, but the high school football offseason has been pretty eventful.

Most area teams will begin two-a-days Monday morning as the run up to the season begins. Cabot and Jacksonville will kick things off with the latest installment of “The Backyard Brawl” at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Aug. 31, a Tuesday, and the rest of the area teams will have their Friday night openers Sept. 3.

Wind sprints and the pop of the pads will soon become everyday happenings, but local programs have been far from quiet.

Jacksonville and North Pulaski will each debut a new head coach, though neither is a stranger to his program.

Rick Russell is the former Jacksonville defensive coordinator who has returned — after one year leading North Pulaski — to take over the program where he spent 14 seasons.

To replace Russell, North Pulaski has named youthful offensive coordinator Terrod Hatcher, 23, to his first head coaching assignment in his second year on staff.

Russell and Hatcher will be trying to reenergize programs that have struggled. Under Mark Whatley, who departed to become offensive coordinator at Springdale and was 6-4 in 2008, Jacksonville dropped to 2-8 last season. North Pulaski was 1-9 under Russell, winning just one game for the third straight year.

Jacksonville will compete in the 7A/6A-East after playing in the 6A-East last year. North Pulaski is a member of the 5A-Southeast.

North Pulaski’s fellow 5A-Southeast member Sylvan Hills, under Jim Withrow, will be trying to recapture the momentum it had at the end of last year. After starting 0-5 and battling injuries, the Bears won four of their last five and claimed a playoff berth, though they lost 48-13 to Greenwood in the first round.

Withrow’s Bears need a new quarterback after all-state selectee Jordan Spears, a UALR baseball signee, graduated.

That puts Sylvan Hills in the same boat as Cabot, which just missed a trip to the 7A state championship thanks to a late touchdown pass by Springdale Har-Ber in the playoffs, and Lonoke, the 4A state runner-up that fell to Shiloh Christian in the championship at War Memorial Stadium.

Cabot, which won the 7A-Central and was edged by Har-Ber in the playoffs for the second straight year, must replace departed senior Seth Bloomberg as the signal caller in the Panthers’ punishing Dead T offense. Bloomberg is one of 13 graduated starters, a group that includes Leader defensive player of the year Spencer Neumann, who will play linebacker at Central Arkansas this fall.

Lonoke, of the 2-4A Con-ference, won five straight to close out the regular season and took three of its four playoff victories on the road. But the Jackrabbits must not only replace scrappy quarterback Michael Nelson, but all-state running back and Leader offensive player of the year Brandon Smith as well.

Searcy will be trying to improve on its four victories under second-year coach Tim Harper, who led the Lions to as much success as they had in the previous four years total, and returns junior quarterback Dezmond Stegall. This year the Lions are in the 7A/6A-East with Jacksonville.

Beebe, of the 5A-East, lost by one point to Sylvan Hills in the season finale and missed the playoffs for the first time in three years under John Shannon. The Badgers hope returning quarterback Scot Gowen can continue to grow in the option.

Harding Academy is favored to win the 2-3A Conference with returning all-state quarterback Seth Keese, who passed for 2,480 yards and 22 touchdowns. The Wildcats have won seven conference championships and four state championships the past 10 years and look like contenders again after bowing out to eventual state champion Fountain Lake.

Harding Academy opens the season with a home game rematch against Fountain Lake.

Harding Academy’s crosstown and conference neighbor Riverview enters its third season of varsity football and returns Grafton Harrell, who provided 1,336 offensive yards and 16 touchdowns despite a broken thumb suffered early in the season against Carlisle.

The Raiders were 6-4 but missed the postseason after qualifying in their first year in 2008.