Stephen Neal's football Blackhawks has begun their season is earnest with the opening of fall camp.
Looking to improve on last season's 7-4 campaign, the 'Hawks have their largest roster on record to open fall practices. Up to 130 students have signed on to try and earn playing time with the Blackhawks' very successful football program. Pea Ridge has a 53-12 record over the part five years, reaching the state semi-finals three times, and the state finals once.
The 'Hawks have won 82% of their games over the past five seasons, tops in the conference. The second best winning percentage over that time has been Prairie Grove's 46-14 record (77%) and Shiloh at 47-17 (73%). The only other 4A-1 team without a losing overall record during that time frame was Gravette's 27-27 mark (50%). Shiloh starts the season ranked No. 3 in the Hooten's state poll, Pea Ridge No. 6 and Prairie Grove No. 16.
The 4A-1 conference is still considered by Hooten's the second best 4A league in the state, behind the 4A-7 which boasts four teams that have a shot at playing in Little Rock this season. Defending state champ Arkadelphia, past state champion Nashville, and oftimes top-ranked Robinson go with up and coming Bauxite to give 4A-7 coaches a tough schedule. Arkadelphia, which won their second straight title in 2018, lost their first five games in 2018 and were just one more loss away from perhaps not even making the playoffs. Arkadelphia is the current No. 1 ranked team with Nashville No. 2, Robinson No. 4 and Bauxite No. 14.
The Arkansas River valley 4A-4 is rated the third best district in the state with sixth-ranked Ozark, 10th-ranked Mena, 12th-ranked Dardanelle and No. 15, Pottsville. The bottom three tiers of 4A football include the 4A-8, 4A-2 and the 4A-3. The 4A-8 has No. 5-ranked Warren along with No. 8-ranked Dumas with the bottom two leagues unlikely to send anyone past the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Last season, though suffering key personnel losses for most of the conference season, the 'Hawks were 6-0 heading into the season finale with Shiloh. Roughly half of the Ridge starters are back for the 2019 campaign and the locals could well build for a season finale scenario like the last one previous.
The 'Hawks' first official game will be three weeks hence when Harrison's Goblins will be in town. The Goblins will be the toughest team on the Blackhawk schedule in 2019 even if they make the 4A state final in December. Harrison is ranked No. 2 in the state in 5A behind perennial state champion Pulaski. Harrison actually led Pulaski last year in the playoffs semis, scoring 51 points on the Bruins of Little Rock, However, Pulaski's high octane offense racked up 75 to win the high scoring tussle.
Harrison is ranked No. 14 among all high schools in Arkansas, with only the best of the large schools and Pulaski ranked ahead of them. They return a whopping 16 starters from last season. Their biggest star is Gabe Huskey, a 5'11" 175-pound running back who ran for 2,150 yards in 2018 though only playing in the first half of 10 of those contests. Huskey is a great receiver and excellent kick returner. Pulaski overcame a 35-26 deficit to Harrison last season in no small measure by figuring out a way to shut down Huskey for at least some of the time. That, and their ability to make on-side kicks pay off.
The 'Hawks will host 5A Central team Maumelle in their second battle of the non-conference season. It was this game last year that saw the 'Hawks turn around their season. They had been beaten rather handily on the road at Harrison and then were jumped on 20-0 by Maumelle in the game's opening minutes. The Hornets led 33-7 at the half.
The 'Hawks came back after the half a new team, outscoring the Hornets 10-0 in the third to close the gap to 33-17. Maumelle scored on a long run early in the fourth but the 'Hawks scored on consecutive drives to cut the lead to 40-30 before the clock ran out.
The following week, the 'Hawks not only upset the favored Farmington Cardinals, but crushed them 42-0 in the mostly one-sided victory over the 'Hawks' Washington County rivals in school history. That game launched a seven-game winning streak that gained the 'Hawks a No. 2 seed in the state playoffs.
state football polls
The computer/data based MaxPreps polls were released with the 'Hawks included in the Top 20 of the initial state-wide poll. They picked Pea Ridge for the runner up spot in the league.
Shiloh with most of their starters back from 2018 are picked to win the district crown again. The 'Hawks are picked along with Shiloh, to run the table to go into a Nov. 8 league showdown in Springdale with the conference crown on the line.
Perennial league favorite Prairie Grove, for the first time in decades, is not expected to finish among the Top Three. The Tigers were fourth in 2018 for the their worst finish since the 1990s. Prairie Grove has a very young team in 2019 with only eight seniors on their roster. The 'Hawks have more than 30 in comparison. Green Forest, the state's lowest ranked team, also returns by eight seniors with sophomores comprising half the their team.
Benton County rival Gravette has a few more players this year than last with over 40 in fall camp. The Lions have the least number of seniors playing this fall with just seven. Their seventh-place predicted finish may the lowest outlook they have ever had. The 'Hawks' other west county rival, Gentry, has the smallest roster in the league with just 30 but almost half are seniors so they could make a run for the playoffs again this year. Lincoln has 40 players this fall with a good balance of sophomores, juniors and seniors.
MaxPreps 4A-1 District
Top five finishers are included into the playoffs.
2. Pea Ridge
4. Prairie Grove
8. Green Forest
State football poll
*Current statewide MaxPreps rankings with last season's records are as follow:
11. West Helena^9-3
15. Fountain Lake^6-5
16. Heber Springs^7-5
17. Harmony Grove^5-5
18. Pea Ridge^7-4
22. Star City^4-7
24. Batesville Southside^6-5
29. Central Arkansas^5-6
31. Prairie Grove^5-6
33. Bald Knob^4-6
44. Cave City^1-9
48. Green Forest^1-9
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. The opinions expressed are those of the writer. He can be contacted through The Times at email@example.com.Sports on 08/07/2019
Print Headline: The 2019 gridiron season looms