SPRINGDALE — For the first time since <!--Default For Chris Wood is to ignore-->Chris Wood has been associated with the Shiloh Christian football program, the Saints were not only left home during the postseason, but they struggled just to win three games.
Yet, the sights of 1AAA Conference's double-barreled shotguns are set squarely on the Saints, who invaded the league last season and were greeted with every school's best effort.
Shiloh Christian was left with a 3-7 record and an injury report as long as a Class AA football team's roster.
While the coaches of the league are keeping their eye on Shiloh Christian, Berryville may escape from the hen house with the biggest prize. The Bobcats were the league runner-up last year and return 17 starters for first-year coach Doug Scheel. "They return everybody from last year," said Wood of his chief rival for a 1AAA crown. "They've got a good quarterback coming back and a good running back coming back."
Corey Roberts, who played behind 2,000-yard gainer <!--Default For Joseph Harris is to ignore-->Joseph Harris, had 600 yards himself and Steven Truelove guided the offense to 393 points in 12 games — an average of 32.8 points per game.
Scheel is not your average first-year coach, either. "Look what he did at Booneville and Berryville isn't that much different an environment than Booneville," Wood said. "They've got the same kind of hard-nosed football players up there, so in my opinion, they're the team to beat."
After Berryville and Shiloh Christian — which was tabbed to win the league last year before a string of injuries caught up to the Saints — Prairie Grove and Gravette remain the biggest obstacles to a 1AAA title. "Ever since 1997, Coach [Danny] Abshier seems to put those kids in the position they need to be in to win a conference title at Prairie Grove," Wood said. "Gravette will be good again and I'm sure Farmington will be good with Coach [Mike] Adams taking over there."
Shiloh Christian, a threetime state champion in Class AA from 1998-2001, finished two games out of the playoff picture last season.
This time around, the Saints have nine returning starters on both sides of the football. At least six of those returning starters sustained long-term injuries during the 2002 season, hampering the climb to the top of the new conference even more. "I don't think we were a 3-7 team last year," Wood said. "But when we did have adversity, we didn't handle it very well and we, as coaches, did not do a very good job of coaching.
"One thing for sure at Shiloh, though, is the kids are going to always going to play hard."
Wood, who brought the Saints the 2002 title, said there is always going to be pressure at Shiloh Christian. This year's pressure is a little different:
"The pressure in 2003 is to prove that we weren't that bad a team last year and to return to the form we were at," Wood said.
Some pundits feel that the Saints' 2002 campaign was capsized by a schedule that schools in Class AAAAA would try to avoid.
"In the big scheme of things, you go out there to find those kinds of schools with great football teams to see where your school stacks up, "Wood said." You have to weigh that against whether or not it is fair to put your kids into those kinds of situations."
Wood was firm about the belief that his team does need to continue to play the "big dogs" even following last year's Springdale game. That was a game that many can point to as the beginning of the Saints' demise with a season-ending injury — a broken collarbone — to starting quarterback Nathan Emert. "It's still worth it to us right now," Wood said, "but like I said, you have to weigh the value of both sides."
One thing for sure, Wood said, is "this will be the last year we'll play Springdale."
How RPS sees the 1AAA Conference race:
6-1 Shiloh Christian
6-1 Prairie Grove
3-4 Green Forest