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It's a new year (read season), and while there may be a lot of newness to Pea Ridge football, especially on the offensive side, some things will remain the same.

A big thing thing that will stay the same are the dedicated and supportive fans and community folks who have done so much to encourage and back their players. The trip to Nashville two years ago saw the Hawks snap the Scrappers 26 game winning streak with their fans leaving the stadium in great numbers once the game was out of reach. Our loss in last year's semifinals was assured long before the game's end, but local fans stuck around to the end and after. Other teams and communities have often displayed less than stellar exhibitions of of sportsmanship and good will, but the folks from the Ridge have been the standard setters in magnanimity in victory and grace in defeat. Above all, the fans of this little town have been with their Hawks through thick or thin, all the way to the end, win lose or draw.

While a lot of talented seniors of the Class of 2018 may have departed campus, many things remain in place to bode well for the team this fall. First off, the football staff is intact from the 2017 campaign after losing both the offensive and defensive coordinators from the 2016 season. With football, continuity is a big thing.

Head coach Stephen Neal will be entering into his third season at the helm with an impressive 25-4 won-loss record. Cody Alexander will be coordinating the varsity offense for the second season, with Nathan Claytor working with the defensive line, Asa Poteete directing the offensive line, Josh Reynolds training the receivers, Matt Easterling coaching the linebackers, Jacob Meyers tutoring the defensive backs, and John King, the longest serving football coaching staff member in school history, working as an assistant. Coach Neal will again serve as the defensive coordinator.

The 2018 football roster boasts 90 players heading into fall training. While that number will likely fluctuate over the next few weeks, it is still the largest assemblage of players that the 'Hawks have ever had step up to the plate. Twenty of the players are heading into their senior season.

Most of the Class of 2019 will be working on the line, meaning tackles, guards, center or ends. Included in that group are Gannon Conrad, Toby Dunning, Mike Mahoney, Xavier Aguilar, Trevon McDonald, Dalton Nesbitt, Arnoldo Rascon, Nathan Wood, Blake Blevin, Brody Weber and Cooper Ferguson.

The senior linebacker corps includes Tristan Brewer, Tyler Anderson and Garrett Brooks. Senior defensive backs include Carson Rhine, Justin Koon and Mason Harwell. The senior receivers include Koon, Anderson, Brooks, Toby Dunning, Peyton Beckmann and Peyton Galbraith. Tristan Yager and Dunning will log some time carrying the pigskin.

The Blackhawks are very experienced overall on the defensive side of things and that will be extremely important with the 'Hawks upgrading their schedule to include an all-5A opponent lineup in their three pre-conference games. Up until last year, the 'Hawks usually played nearly all 3A class opponents, teams that they have been playing for decades when Pea Ridge was a much smaller school. Farmington was added as the first 5A school to play the 'Hawks with Maumelle and Harrison added to the schedule this season, the first time to play either opponent.

The 'Hawks will start the season playing two teams they have never met before in Harrison and Maumelle. Their last pre-conference game will be against Farmington. While the 'Hawks are 4-6 against the Cardinals since 2001, the 'Hawk have won the last four battles.

The 'Hawks' open conference play is Sept. 21 against Gentry, with a winning 9-5 mark since 2001 winning the last five. The second conference game on Sept. 28, will be with Lincoln, whom the 'Hawks have beaten 10 of the last 11 times they have matched up.

The conference season will toughen on Oct. 5 when they visit Gravette. While having a losing 4-8 mark against the Lions, the 'Hawks have won three of the last four. The next game will be at Prairie Grove on Oct. 12. The Tigers have won nine of 12 against the 'Hawks, but the teams have split the last four games. On Oct. 19, Berryville, a team the 'Hawks have beaten eight of the last 14 times, but four of the last five, comes to town.

New conference member Green Forest has a losing record against Pea Ridge (6-7) with the 'Hawks winning five of the last six with the only blemish coming from a forfeit by the 'Hawks. The season finale will again be against Shiloh, a team they have beaten four of the last five times they have played.

Over the past four years, the 'Hawks have the second best combined conference record (2014-2017). The overall records of this years 4A- teams is as follows.

4A-1 Conference records

2014-2017

1. Prairie Grove^25-3

2. Pea Ridge^24-4

3. Shiloh^21-7

4. Gravette^18-10

5. Lincoln^8-20

6. Green Forest^8-20*

7. Gentry^7-21

8. Berryville^1-27

*conference games in the 3A-1

Though the Hooten's people rank the 'Hawks well ahead of Prairie Grove (fourth compared to 11th) in their state poll, the coaches of the 4A-1 still ranked the Tigers as the team to beat in 2018. With the Tigers averaging more than 10 wins a year for the past seven seasons, Prairie Grove is never a bad choice to select as the team for the others to chase.

Danny Abshier is the longtime coach of the Tigers and is hoping to notch his 300th win at the school this season. His career record at the school is 189-102 and he has been the skipper of the Washington County school since the 1990s.

What most folks don't remember or know is that Abshier was nearly fired not long into his tenure. Back in the '90s, the Tigers were not the super successful team they have become since the new millennium and the first couple of years for Abshier were a bit rocky and there were some calls for his removal by disgruntled fans. The school stuck with him, though, and he has built a perennial contender, winning a least a part of five of the last six conference titles.

The Tigers will have an experienced defense but beyond that, there are a lot of question marks. However, I remember thinking this on other years before this one and though he may lack a lot of seasoned players, he mounts one successful campaign after another. The Tigers have had four different starting quarterbacks for four straight years but they have not missed a beat. Whoever will take the field will likely be a threat.

Prairie Grove turns out linemen in big numbers every year, with the younger ones stepping right in after the older ones graduate. They expect to win and they will never bad. The 'Hawks have split the last four games and this year will be a battle like the last four.

Shiloh is perhaps ranked the lowest they have ever been in the pre-season. They were ranked 15th to start last season and this year they are 16th to begin.

The private school boys from Springdale counted only seven victories in 2017, with the school's head coach Jeff Conaway weirdly blaming Pea Ridge for their lackluster showing.

Conaway remarked that it was hard keeping his players focused all year because of his players' obsession with beating the Blackhawks. True enough, Conaway lost his first four encounters with the Blackhawks, but he also lost his first four encounters with Prairie Grove as well. One would think that a team would be much better off if they just played a game at a time and not be looking down the road.

Shiloh did manage to beat the 'Hawks 17-14 in the season finale, but only after the 'Hawks had already wrapped up the conference title and the No. 1 seed headed into the playoffs. A few years ago, the 'Hawks faced an undefeated Prairie Grove team with Pea Ridge facing the end of their season should they lose. The Tigers had already clinched the title and top seed and was just cruising into the playoffs. The result? A Pea Ridge victory.

Last year, following the win over the 'Hawks, Shiloh was crushed by Stuttgart 28-7 to end their season with the 'Hawks taking their next three games to land in the semifinals.

Shiloh was shocked last year by Gravette who defeated them 24-19 for their first ever win over the privateers. The Lions have a new coach and a new program so maybe their win over Shiloh may be a trend into the future.

Gravette has usually fielded a good team over the years, and they recently signed a new coach from Jenks, Okla. Doug Greenwood was one of the senior coaches in a traditionally powerhouse program in Jenks. Over the last dozen or so years, Jenks and neighboring school Tulsa Union have dominated the big school football landscape in the Sooner state, way more often than not, played each other in the state championship game.

Greenwood inherits a team that has been losing roster depth the past few years due to the CTE scare that some media outlets and news organizations have been hyping. Even though, the chief "evidence" scaring parents from allowing their kids to participate in the game was in even measures exaggerated or made up, 2017 was the first year on record that saw a drop in high school football player numbers across the United States.

While playing with or getting concussions is a serious situation, the incidences of it happening are quite small. Generally speaking, the rate among properly trained, conditioned and equipped high school players is extremely small. In contrast, those kinds of injuries are much more common among high school soccer players but has anyone seen articles about that?

I do believe that the new system in Gravette will make the Lions more competitive. They have more than 30 players in the seventh grade this season with their having won the past two NWA elementary football league titles. Having a grandson among those 30 athletes gives me a little insight into what might be coming down the road from the west county school.

Just like the past several years, the bottom half of the conference will be markedly less formidable than the top four. Lincoln lacks size but returns a lot of skill performers. Gentry might be a contender for the fifth seed but Berryville, with only one conference win in four years, is probably sitting at home this post season.

At least the Bobcats have a great chance to avoid the basement this year. Huntsville moved up to 5A with Green Forest taking their place in the 4A-1. The GF Tigers were 2-8 last year in the 3A-1 and have a lack of experience as well as speed.

So will the 'Hawks retain the No. 1 seed or will Prairie Grove retake it?

Will Shiloh stop making excuses and just start playing and will the new Gravette head coach bring his winning ways into the Lions' heads to boost their chances?

To get the answers, come out this fall on Friday nights and take in some games.

•••

Editor's note: John McGee, an award-winning columnist, sports writer and art teacher at Pea Ridge elementary schools, writes a regular sports column for The Times. He can be contacted through The Times at prtnews@nwadg.com.

Sports on 07/11/2018

Print Headline: New chapter in Blackhawk football

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