Blue Devils out to topple Indians for 3AA crown

Marked Tree won 29 games in a row in the 3AA Conference dating back to a 44-36 loss to Earle in 1998. With a new kid on the block, Hughes, the Indians felt the heat of a legitimate threat to their title last year and there are backups on the way in 2003. Hughes, Earle and Palestine-Wheatley are all capable of taking the Tribe down a notch or two.

The 3AA Conference is neither steeped with tradition nor a fertile ground for soon-to-be football powerhouses, but the league does have something most leagues don't: The 3AA has 10 teams and you would figure, just because of the numbers alone, one or two of those teams could be great.

Well, that's not necessarily the case.

It will take a good November effort and probably a little luck for any team from the 3AA Conference to make it to the Class AA quarterfinals. No current member of the league has played for the state title since Gus Malzahn led Hughes to a title shot in a higher classification back in 1994. Since that time, only two schools have advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Marked Tree, under wunderkind Bobby Bolding, reached the quarterfinals in 2000 and Hughes, enjoying the benefits of lower enrollment, popped its head in for a look last season.

The Blue Devils finished second to Marked Tree in their first go at 3AA football last year. A November spurt, shot Hughes into the third round of the playoffs, however, and made the Blue Devils the league's only 10-win team. Hughes also joined Salem as the only two schools from the league besides Marked Tree to win a playoff game since 1994.

Beyond Hughes and Marked Tree, there really isn't a proven winner in this lot of 10 teams.

Earle, however, is on the brink of breaking down the barrier.

The Bulldogs went 7-4 last season and return eight starters on offense and defense. The returning numbers, which include quarterback Bobby Moody, are the best of any of the teams at the top of the league ladder. Yet, Earle will have to find a way to position itself better for the playoffs and earn its first postseason victory since 1991.

Palestine-Wheatley is the coaches' choice to finish second to Hughes in the conference. The Patriots eked into the playoffs last year and were treated to a 49-23 thumping from Harding Academy before hanging up the helmets for the winter. Less than half the offense returns from a squad that put up an average of more than 28 points a game and defeated Salem, 38-14, in a playoff-like regular-season finale.

Rich's Power System detects a wide gap from those first four clubs to fifth-place Walnut Ridge. Right behind the Bobcats, though, is a team that could be ready to pounce: Cross County.

The Thunderbirds ended a state's-worst 44-game losing streak with a 61-0 demolition of McCrory and then rumbled on to a 5-5 record. Only three starters graduated, but one of them was Cross County's top rusher. An improvement on last year's performance would bring the Thunderbirds their first winning season in 11 years, their first playoff berth since 1990 and the hope of capturing their first playoff win since 1984.

Salem knocked on the postseason door last year but was turned away in the final game of the season. The Greyhounds can still win three games with Parkin, Rector and Turrell on the schedule.


Here's how RPS sees the 3AA race stacking up:

8-1 Hughes

8-1 Earle

7-2 Marked Tree

7-2 Palestine-Wheatley

5-4 Walnut Ridge

4-5 Cross County

3-6 Salem

1-8 Rector

1-8 Parkin

1-8 Turrell

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