The Hope Bobcats were all ready to run the AAAA-Southwest Conference table for a third consecutive time when real-life issues set in last season. Instead of lamenting the losses and hard times that fell on Hope, though, the 2002 Bobcats should probably be immortalized for the way they rebounded under interim coach Johnny Turner.
Turner took over at the outset of the conference season and led Hope into the playoffs – the seventh consecutive year the Bobcats have reached the postseason – and a passable 6-5 record.
Turner was rewarded by having the "interim" removed from his title and has his team focused on the future. The past isn't worth talking about.
But the future has its own hurdles.
Hot Springs popped up on the radar for contenders, turning a 1-9 record into a 9-2 mark last season. The Trojans ended a 13-year streak of losing seasons and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1996. Next on the agenda for Troy is to win its first postseason football game since 1984.
While Hope has been by far the most dominant playoff team – no other school in the league has even been to the playoffs every year this century – and Hot Springs has turned its program around, the other two playoff spots look like locks. Magnolia, the league co-champion last year with Hot Springs, and Pulaski Robinson both return enough experience and own enough tradition to qualify for an 11th game.
Little Rock J.A. Fair and Malvern both return the biggest number of returning starters, but both schools are building on just single wins last year. Fair welcomed Malvern to Little Rock with a 34-13 thrashing last year.
Arkadelphia also went 1-9 last year, beating Fair but losing to Malvern.
That leaves Hot Springs Lakeside as the boundary between the best and worst of the league. The Rams, who have not won a playoff game since 1975, are capable of upsetting any of the league's elite and also of losing to any of the AAAA-Southwest's stragglers.
Here's how RPS sees the AAAA-Southwest race stacking up:
6-1 Hot Springs
5-2 Pulaski Robinson
3-4 Hot Springs Lakeside
1-6 LR Fair