It didn't take long for the 1AA Conference, the roost ruled by the Shiloh Christian Saints from the late 1990s into the new millennium, to find a new dominant football team.
The Charleston Tigers, moved from their perch as the 4AA Conference king, have taken quite nicely to the mountain air of the 1AA. With a 2002 conference championship, the Tigers claimed their fourth consecutive league title last year – Charleston's first year in the 1AA – and ran their conference winning streak to 32 games in a row.
The last time Charleston lost a conference game was the 1999 league opener at Hector, a 10-9 setback for the Tigers.
Coach Shane Storey won his 100th game last year and returns 16 starters, including nine on defense, to a team that had little trouble in its new surroundings. Like Shiloh Christian before it, Charleston wiped up the 1AA competition with ease. The Tigers won all of their league games by at least 13 points.
An October meeting with Elkins was closer than some expected, though, and much closer than the 28-14 final indicated. The Tigers closed out the regular season with a 21-6 win over Pea Ridge.
Elkins and Pea Ridge are the two prime contenders for Charleston's crown and the best choices to end the Tigers' conference winning streak in 2003. Elkins returns one of the league's top running backs in Josh Finkus, who scored 25 touchdowns and gained 1,928 yards in 2002. While the Elks' running game is in excellent hands, the Blackhawks lost their school's all-time rushing leader when Joey Wiltgen (2,240 yards, 26 touchdowns) graduated.
Neither team appears ready to succeed Charleston. The Tigers may have their best chance ever to make it to War Memorial Stadium without old roadblocks like Shiloh Christian in the way.
Yet, the Elks and Blackhawks are gaining a little on the Tigers and creeping above the line that demarks mediocrity in Class AA.
Beyond that, however, the 1AA Conference is in some disarray.
Losing Shiloh Christian left the league with no former champions in the 35-year history of the state playoffs. Decatur and Westside – the Johnson County school located in Coal Hill – both dropped their football programs with the possibility of greater consolidation issues facing both schools.
The remains of the league include Mountainburg, a school that had to forfeit its last three games last season when injuries mounted. Even so, the Dragons are the team most likely to earn a postseason game if any of the top four clubs – including Lavaca – should falter.
Here's how RPS sees the 1AA race stacking up:
5-2 Pea Ridge