Danville's appearance in the Class AA State Championship Game last December was no surprise to folks from Yell County. But in the landscape of football in Arkansas' smallest classification, the Little Johns achieved far more than what most people outside the 4AA Conference expected.
Saddled with a regular-season schedule that pitted Danville against just two quality teams, the Little Johns still were able to find ways to improve each week. They recorded five shutouts, scored 37.8 points per ballgame and then scared the living daylights out of Harding Academy before falling, 29-26, in the championship game.
The 14-1 season capped a three-year run where the Little Johns went 33-7. That's 33-7 after going just 3-7 in 1999.
Coach Kenny Bell, a member of Danville's 1974 state-championship team, has moved into administration and a Danville assistant, D.J. Crane, will take over the reins. Crane inherits a team that loses 13 starters – a big number in the small-school ranks – and 11 players who were named to the all-conference team.
Crane also inherits a schedule that many still believe will do little to help prepare Danville for a strong postseason run. The Little Johns overcame that in 2002, but will face the same issues this year.
To put it plainly, Danville has the tradition of 48 playoff games under its belt. The rest of the league combined – that's nine other schools – has only played in 28 playoff games. Danville has a 26-22 playoff record and Hector is 8-6. After that, only Arkansas Baptist has won more than a single postseason encounter and Marshall has one victory from 1990.
Six of the teams have never won a playoff game and three of them have never been.
After Danville and Hector – which also proved to be much stronger than anticipated – the 4AA Conference will produce a third-place team that could easily be demolished in the first round of the playoffs. It happened last year with Little Rock Christian and Arkansas Baptist both losing by 33 points in first-round games at Charleston and Elkins, respectively.
The same two teams will be in the hunt again this year, but we're not counting out Ola. The Mustangs, with one of the oldest programs in a league filled with newcomers, were in the thick of the race last year and finished tied for the final playoff spot with Little Rock Christian. The difference might have been as tiny as the home-field advantage as Ola lost, 28-21, at Little Rock Christian in late September.
Magazine also entertained playoff hopes, but found itself burned by a forfeit to Bigelow and then a 40-37 loss at Little Rock Christian in the final two weeks of the season.
Despite key road games this year, Little Rock Christian is the team most likely to join Danville and Hector in the playoffs. Ola, which has only played an 11th game twice – in 1978 and again in 1996 – in the playoff era, also aims to collect its first winning record in six years.
Here's how RPS sees the 4AA race stacking up:
6-3 LR Christian
4-5 Arkansas Baptist
3-6 LR Cathedral
0-9 LR Lutheran