Friday, August 21, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> PA to repeat in 5A-Central

Leader sportswriter

The 5A-Central Conference was a compelling one in 2014, and even so in the offseason. Pulaski Academy once again rolled through the conference undefeated on its way to another state championship.

Beebe started the year 0-4, but finished the regular season by winning five of its last six games to earn the No. 2 seed in the 5A state playoffs, where they advanced to the semifinals.

Before the playoffs started, the Badgers were given a win for their fourth loss of the season against McClellan, who had to forfeit two games because of an ineligible starter. That, and the fact they upset previously unbeaten Sylvan Hills in week nine helped Beebe lock up the two seed from the Central.

Sylvan Hills was expected to give PA a challenge for the top spot, as the Bears opened their season with a perfect 8-0 record, but injuries decimated their chances down the stretch, and as a result, they lost their final three games, including their first round playoff game.

In the offseason, North Pulaski put an end to its football program because participation numbers were incredibly low for a 5A team, and that lowered the conference to seven teams.

As far as what team The Leader expects to claim the conference championship this season, until someone knocks this team off, it’ll keep getting picked to claim the league crown.

1) Pulaski Academy Bruins

There’s a saying that goes ‘to be the best, you got to beat the best.’ Well, that’s the case here, and no one in this conference has ever beaten the Bruins on the gridiron since the 5A-Central Conference was formed three years ago. But PA’s conference winning streak didn’t start there.

Pulaski Academy has won a whopping 35 consecutive conference games and five-straight conference championships, and none of their conference games were close in 2014. Coach Kevin Kelley has set high standards for the program, and has built it into one that’s gained national recognition.

The Bruins returns six starters on offense and five on defense from last year’s state championship team. They did lose some key starters – their quarterback, leading receiver, among others, to graduation, and their second-leading receiver from last year, who’s also the coach’s son, tore his ACL at a recent 7-on-7 tournament.

He’s a senior, but is not expected to miss the entire season. On top of that, the Bruins have plenty of other playmakers back for 2015, and should be in good position for yet another league title.

2) Beebe Badgers

The Badgers had a remarkable run from midseason on, and are hoping to build on that success this season. Injuries plagued the team early last year, but once those guys got healthy, or healthy enough, the Badgers became more of the team that many were expecting to see.

They’ve got two 1,000-yard backs (Trip Smith and Jo’Vaughn Wyrick) returning for their senior seasons, which has given the team a preseason ranking as high as No. 3 in Class 5A by some publications.

Beebe, though, has to replace almost its entire offensive line, a three-year starter at quarterback, and a total of eight starters on that side of the ball. The Badgers do have six returning starters on defense, and if the team can stay healthy, it could perhaps give PA a challenge when the two teams meet this fall.

3) Jacksonville Red Devils

The Red Devils had a rough start to their 2014 season, losing six of their first seven games before winning their final three to earn a playoff berth. The team jumped out to a 14-0 lead against perennial 5A power Batesville in the first round of the 5A playoffs, but the tradition-rich Pioneers responded with 33 unanswered points to put an end to Jacksonville’s season.

Jacksonville has seven starters returning on offense for second-year head coach Barry Hickingbotham, and four on defense. The Red Devils always have athletes on both the line and the skill positions, but some of those players are unproven at the varsity level.

Depth on offense should be a key strength for the Devils this season, but it remains to be seen how the unproven front seven on defense will fare once league play begins in week four.

4) Sylvan Hills Bears

As mentioned, Sylvan Hills was a state championship contender last season before injuries led to the team’s demise down the stretch. The Bears opened the season with eight-straight wins, but lost their final three, including their first round playoff game.

Granted, those three losses were against three of the four semifinalists in 5A, including the two teams that played for the state championship. But the Bears would’ve made things more interesting had they been healthy.

Head coach Jim Withrow has 70-plus players on his team this season, but 23 seniors graduated in May, and only three starters return on offense, and five on defense. A good chunk of those younger players will have to learn and develop quickly if the Bears hope to make a run at a league title this season.

5) Little Rock McClellan Crimson Lions

McClellan won five games last year, but had to forfeit two of its wins because of an ineligible starting player. As a result, the team officially finished the year 3-7. Head coach Maurice Moody is in his third year at the school, and has developed his team into one that coaches around the league have taken notice of.

The Crimson Lions have eight returning starters on offense and six on defense, and the speed and size to do well this season. The lack of depth, though, could hurt the team’s chances if injuries occur. Regardless, though, McClellan’s football team is no longer a gimme win for other teams.

6) Mills Comets

The Comets had a down year last season, finishing 3-7 and missing the playoffs. Only one starter on offense and four on defense return to the team in 2015. The Comets lost an All-State running back and All-Conference quarterback to graduation.

Mills will have some playmakers on its team, but so will every other team in this conference. Expect another tough year for Mills.

7) J.A. Fair War Eagles

It’s been a long time since the War Eagles were relevant on the football field. The team hasn’t won a game on the field since week one of 2013. They did receive a win in 2014 as one of McClellan’s forfeits, giving the team an official 1-9 finish for the second consecutive season.

The team does have some experience returning this year, but very little depth and the team as a whole is undersized for a 5A-Central team. Comparing it to recent years, expect a similar season for the War Eagles in 2015.