Ignore that 35-26 road loss to Mayflower, Pulaski Oak Grove was the best team in the 5AAA Conference in 2002 and, with more starters back from that team than any other team in the league, there's no reason to believe the Hornets can't repeat as champions in 2003.
Oak Grove shared last year's title with Dover, a squad the Hornets thumped, 28-7, and is looking for its first outright league title since 1988. Winning the crown would also give the Hornets, under second-year coach John Mayes, their first consecutive titles since Bobby Tiner's first few years. From 1977-79, Oak Grove rebounded from an 0-10 campaign in 1976 and won three straight 4AA-East Conference championships. Oak Grove went 14-1 in a league similar to the one its in now and capped the three-year run off with a state title in 1979.
Truthfully, Oak Grove is the only team from this lot that can harbor state-title hopes with a straight face.
But don't tell people at Atkins and Dover that.
Atkins had an 11-year playoff streak snapped in 1999 and the Red Devils have been back just one time since their streak was stopped. Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, Atkins has good numbers returning, including eight on defense.
Dover went 9-2-1 last season and shared the conference title. The Pirates also return respectable numbers.
Then there's Dardanelle, which returns its biggest numbers to the offensive side of the football. Veteran coach John Flaherty and his troops have some scores to settle after a 2002 campaign went sour. The Sand Lizards were picked by the league's coaches to win the conference in 2002, but limped home with a 3-7 record and a fifth-place tie.
Clinton and Mayflower both proved they could compete in the newly aligned league. Mayflower moved up from the state's smallest classification and surprised Oak Grove. Yet, inconsistency showed in losses to Clinton and, in late October, to Atkins.
Clinton, in spite of making its first playoff appearance in 11 years, has the most to do on the rebuilding front. The Yellowjackets return only four players to each side of the football. That's five fewer experienced players the next team on the returning starters' chart.
Lamar and Perryville continue to battle uphill on a slippery slope. The Mustangs and Warriors have their best chance for a conference victory on Oct. 3 at Lamar.
Here's how RPS sees the 5AAA race stacking up:
7-0 Pulaski Oak Grove