Players at schools like Mountain Pine and Magnet Cove may not believe it, but their schools were once the forerunners in the state's small-school football arena. Throughout the 1970s, teams had to go through the Ouachita Region to play for a state championship and three times during that decade, schools from what is now the 5AA Conference prevailed.
Magnet Cove won the 1970 state title and then threatened to win another one in 1971 and 1972. By the end of the decade, Mountain Pine had become the force of small-school football in the state. The Red Devils made seven consecutive playoff appearances – a much more spectacular feat in the days of three-week postseasons – and finished off the 1978 and 1979 campaigns with state titles.
Mount Ida and Mountain Pine continued the tradition into the early 1980s, but for most of the last 20 years, 5AA Conference football has not been strong. Outside of Bauxite, which has won 15 playoff games, been to two championship games and won it all in 1996, the league had produced only six playoff winners.
That was until last year.
A new king emerged from what was once a scrap heap of teams that were – outside of Bauxite – average at best. Jessieville won its first conference title and Mount Ida turned on the jets to win three playoff games. It was the most impressive playoff run by any team – outside of Bauxite – since Mountain Pine's back-to-back state titles.
The once-average clubs from Jessieville and Mountain Pine continue to improve and the lower-rung programs – like Glen Rose, Cutter Morning Star and Centerpoint – are beginning to find a way to win ballgames.
Overall, the health of the league is improving vastly.
The test for any league's true strength, however, is the postseason. Only five schools from the 5AA Conference have ever won playoff games and Jessieville joined that group just last season. The other four schools – Bauxite, of course, Magnet Cove, Mount Ida and Mountain Pine – own a so-so 51-51 playoff record.
Three of the league's four traditional "powers" are expected to be high in the standings this year. Only Magnet Cove, which returns a mere four starters from a 3-7 campaign, is not worthy of the early-season notice.
Jessieville, which made the playoffs for the first time ever in 1999, has not missed the postseason in four consecutive years. Outside of Bauxite, which has nine consecutive playoff appearances, that's the longest streak of any 5AA team.
Look for the two playoff winners from last season, Jessieville and Mount Ida, to maintain their places in the league ahead of Bauxite and Mountain Pine. The Red Devils bring back 10 starters on offense and 10 on defense in an effort to win their first playoff game since 1985.
Here's how RPS sees the 5AA race stacking up:
7-1 Mount Ida
6-2 Mountain Pine
4-4 Glen Rose
3-5 Cutter Morning Star
1-7 Magnet Cove
0-8 Caddo Hills