Friday, August 26, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Lions, Bears try to unseat state champ

Leader sports editor

There are two new members of the 5A-Central Conference. Former member North Pulaski no longer exists, and Jacksonville was bumped up to Class 6A because of its AHSAA-alleged merger with NP. That made room for Little Rock Christian Academy and Parkview to join the league, but neither figure to knock Pulaski Academy off its seemingly permanent perch atop the conference.

The Bruins have won the 5A-Central championship undefeated in every year of its current existence, and is the clear favorite to do so again this season. They lose more than half their starters on both sides of the ball, but that’s happened before and they still won.

Besides, superstar quarterback Layne Hatcher is back, and that is the position that makes everything go for PA. Hatcher threw for nearly 5,000 yards last year, and had a 5-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio.

In going 14-0, the Bruins scored 50 points or more in half their games, and only half because it didn’t have to the rest of the time. The Bruins took their foot off the gas at halftime in every win that didn’t see the half-century mark. When pressed by the better teams on the schedule, PA just keeps scoring. That accounted for its 71 points against Warren and 78 against Hope.

But all the sportsmanship shown against the weaker teams was overshadowed by an egregious display of terrible sportsmanship to close a classic state championship game against McClellan. Leading 43-30, with the ball and only seconds remaining, head coach Kevin Kelley elected to throw deep for one more score, giving the Bruins their seventh game of 50 points or more.

That move gave the PA detractors, and there are many, more desire than ever to see the Bruins knocked off. While it’s never a smart bet to go against the team that’s never, ever lost to a current conference opponent, if there has ever been a year where it appears on paper like there could be a chance, it’s 2016.

The aforementioned Lions of McClellan High return almost everyone from last year’s Cinderella squad. McClellan came out of nowhere to become a legitimate title contender last season.

The Lions return 8 starters on offense and nine on defense. Those starters include All-State running back Pierre Strong, who had a career against Sylvan Hills alone, and finished with almost 2,300 yards rushing last year. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and 4.4 speed, he’s also gaining attention from some major colleges.

There’s also the fact that each and every one of those 17 starters, and everyone else present on the sidelines of last year’s state championship game, remember what PA did at the end, and motivation is probably a bigger factor in football than any other sport.

Sylvan Hills lost a hard-fought, high-scoring affair with McClellan last season, and will have to show dramatic improvement in dealing with Strong in order to change that outcome.

Strong carried 20 times for 311 yards and five touchdowns against the Bears last year, and the loss seemed to suck the wind out of the sails of the previously undefeated SHHS squad. It went on to lose its next three games as well, and ended the season with a first-round playoff loss to Little Rock Christian Academy.

Another team that put an L on Sylvan Hills’ ledger late last season was Beebe. The Badgers have been underdogs each of the last two seasons when they met the Bears, and have pulled off exciting victories both times.

This year, that might not be the case. Beebe has to replace every single member of a dynamic backfield it has enjoyed the past two seasons, including school career rushing leader Trip Smith, who became the first Badger ever to rush for more than 5,000 yards.

There is some talent at Beebe, but a lot of it is young talent. Last year’s freshmen team went 9-1, with its only loss to undefeated Little Rock Christian Academy. Several of those players figure heavily into the starting rotations for Beebe.

Fact is, it’s a rebuilding year for Beebe. They’ll be competitive and have a real chance at making the playoffs, but being among the elite of 5A again may have to wait until next year.

The LRCA Warriors are now in the same conference with the Bears and Badgers, but with only four returning starters on the entire roster, and some key players from last year’s undefeated ninth grade team choosing to quit football to focus on other sports, repeating last year’s 12-1 season doesn’t seem likely.

Like McClellan, Beebe and Sylvan Hills, LRCA also lost to PA last year, only it wasn’t as close as the others. The Bruins trounced their private-school rival 42-7 in the semifinals of the 5A playoffs.

LRCA opens tough against Warren. That game could be an indicator of whether the Warriors are a playoff lock like many are predicting, or on the outside looking in, as suggested here.

Another team that no one in the conference would be wise to overlook is Parkview. Though only picked sixth, the Patriots always seem to find a way to surprise someone on their schedule.

Last year it was 7A Catholic High the Patriots shocked 35-7, and it could be anybody this season. Parkview can’t seem to find any consistency, but has the kind of athleticism to be dangerous against anyone when it puts things together. This year’s team has only six returning starters, and it also has a history of losing some games inexplicably as well.

A team much like Parkview is Mills. Not much is expected from the Comets this year, but coaches at Sylvan Hills and Beebe are loath to overlook them. They only won two games last year, and they were against two winless teams, but they played the Bears and Badgers tough.

One of those Comet wins came against J.A. Fair, which hasn’t won a game since 2013. The War Eagles have had only one winning season this century, and that was in 2000. They may only have this year and next to try to turn that around before a rumored merger with McClellan takes place. Merger or no, a streak like that has to end sometime. It’s just not likely to be this year.