Harding Academy hard to catch for small schools

Harding Academy coach Tommy Shoemaker hit the jackpot in 2002, bringing the Searcy private school its first state football title since 1983. Shooting for their ninth consecutive playoff berth, the Wildcats' toughest task will be putting themselves in a good position on the bracket after playing in the extra-tough 6AA Conference.

When Harding Academy fought off Danville to win the 2002 Class AA State Championship, the Wildcats took a step toward proving one of the postulates that is often involved in ranking football teams: A team from a strong conference is generally better than a team from a weak conference.

Nowhere could the comparison of conferences be more stark than in Class AA, where Harding Academy took on Danville.

Harding Academy was the best of 10 teams in a league that is full of great traditional powers. There is Barton, the school with more state titles than any school in any classification since the playoff era began. Augusta had been the 2001 runner-up; A man who reached 100 victories faster than anyone coached Carlisle; And, Des Arc is no slouch with seven consecutive playoff appearances. Go all the way down the conference list to Marvell, which is one of just five teams in the state to have won its last playoff game – although that game was played in 1985.

The 6AA Conference was clearly the best in its classification last year and the week-in, week-out battles between 6AA opponents prepared its playoff teams well.

Danville emerged from a league that got props for its top two teams, but had little to offer from third place on down.

Outside of Danville, the league posted only one playoff victory and featured five programs that weren't even around before 1992. Two of them, Little Rock Christian and Little Rock Lutheran, were playing varsity football for the first time in 2002.

Needless to say, Danville's league was heavily scrutinized and often used as an excuse for why the Little Johns were going to have a short playoff journey.

But Danville prevailed.

Close wins over Bearden (27-21), Mineral Springs (21-12) and Mount Ida (19-7) propelled Danville to the title game for the first time since Brad Taylor led the Little Johns to the championship in 1980 – and that game wasn't even played in Little Rock.

This time around, the 4AA Conference must be better. If for no other reason than the fledgling programs have another year under their belts, then Danville's competition will be stronger in 2003.

The 6AA Conference, meanwhile, is being labeled as "overrated" in some circles. Those are strong words for a league that went 13-6 in non-conference action last season.

Teams from the 6AA Conference are ranked first and third to open the 2003 campaign. Carlisle is undergoing a change in leadership after the retirement of James Clayton. In 14 years, Clayton won 150 games for the Bison and reeled off 11 consecutive 10-win seasons before tailing off two a pair of eight-win campaigns in the last three years.

Des Arc and Augusta are both Top 20-caliber teams.

It's safe to say that one-quarter of the best 20 teams in the state can be found in the 6AA Conference. No other league has more than three teams among Class AA's Top 20. The next two most prominent leagues might be a surprise to some.

The 3AA Conference is home to a strong Northeast Arkansas contingent that is led by Hughes. Earle and Marked Tree are both capable of challenging Earle, but may have to settle for second place and a first-round home playoff contest.

The 5AA Conference, for years, produced a line of first-round playoff victims. Other than Bauxite's playoff run in 1995 and a state title in 1996, none of the current 5AA schools had advanced too far into the playoffs since the early 1980s.

That trend may have changed with Mount Ida's push to the semifinals in 2002. The Lions are picked to return to the postseason again this year, but the Jessieville Lions are our pick to win a second consecutive conference title.

Mountain Pine may be the surprise in the league with 20 starters back and Bauxite, the program that for many years was the very soul of the 5AA Conference, has the ability to join Class AA's most elite teams.

While conference parity creates the potential for superpowers, there are a few teams around the state that will do fine on their own.

No. 2 Charleston has won five of the last six conference titles it has competed for in Northwest Arkansas and is getting pushed a little more by Pea Ridge and Elkins.

No. 4 Danville proved it can win without too much in-season testing and should get the better of Hector again in the 4AA Conference.

Mineral Springs has taken control of the 7AA-West Conference and shoots for its fifth consecutive title this season. The Hornets are also aiming for their 23rd season in a row with a record of .500 or better.

Rison has state-championship savvy and, like Danville, plays in league where it will be tough to be prepared for the playoff wars.

And then there is the 7-AA East Conference. Bearden and Junction City give the league two of the best seven teams in Class AA. Beyond that, the league is very average. Smackover, Harmony Grove and Hampton will all battle for the final two playoff spots with an improved Norphlet club only better than lower-rung teams from Sparkman and El Dorado West Side Christian.

 

 

Class AA

All

1.

Harding Academy

93.9

2.

Charleston

90.8

3.

Barton

86.9

4.

Danville

84.4

5.

Mineral Springs

84.4

6.

Bearden

83.7

7.

Junction City

82.2

8.

Rison

82.1

9.

Jessieville

80.7

10.

Hughes

79.3

11.

Mount Ida

79.2

12.

Hector

78.2

13.

Carlisle

77.8

14.

Earle

77.7

15.

Gillett

77.6

16.

Gurdon

77.0

17.

Des Arc

76.7

18.

Augusta

76.3

19.

Marked Tree

75.4

20.

Mountain Pine

75.4

21.

Pea Ridge

75.1

22.

Palestine

74.5

23.

Bauxite

74.0

24.

Elkins

74.0

25.

Hazen

73.7

26.

Dierks

72.0

27.

Smackover

71.4

28.

Harmony Grove

70.6

29.

Clarendon

70.5

30.

Foreman

69.8

31.

Lafayette County

69.8

32.

Walnut Ridge

69.7

33.

Hampton

69.6

34.

Norphlet

68.5

35.

Cross County

68.4

36.

Murfreesboro

68.3

37.

Horatio

68.2

38.

Glen Rose

68.2

39.

Elaine

68.1

40.

Dermott

67.2

41.

Altheimer

66.4

42.

LR Christian

65.3

43.

Lavaca

65.2

44.

Salem

65.1

45.

Ola

65.0

46.

Hermitage

63.8

47.

Cutter Morning Star

63.7

48.

McCrory

63.7

49.

Magazine

63.6

50.

Arkansas Baptist

63.5

51.

El Dorado West Side

63.5

52.

Spring Hill

63.2

53.

Eudora

61.2

54.

Marvell

60.8

55.

Centerpoint

60.0

56.

Magnet Cove

59.8

57.

Sparkman

59.8

58.

Parkin

59.7

59.

Strong

59.3

60.

Marshall

59.2

61.

Hackett

59.2

62.

LR Cathedral

58.9

63.

Turrell

58.5

64.

Cedarville

58.1

65.

Bigelow

57.7

66.

Mountainburg

56.4

67.

Rector

55.8

68.

Woodlawn

55.7

69.

Hartford

55.6

70.

Caddo Hills

55.0

71.

LR Lutheran

48.2


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