AAAA-West: Another Year, Another Title for Alma?

The AAAA-West Conference produced four state champions from three different schools from 1997-2000. Lately, the West has been scooted off its throne and suffered a small dropoff from its success. But while the state-championship picture has changed a little bit, the AAAA-West Conference portrait looks like it always has: With Alma placed prominently in the center.

The same old song and dance looks to be prevalent in the always competitive AAAA-West conference, but a new maestro is looking to make some noise. Morrilton, Siloam Springs, Huntsville, and Greenbrier all
return experienced squads but it might be too difficult to unseat the unfamiliar faces at the top. Alma comes off another semifinal finish in 2002 and looks to claim its third consecutive conference crown.
Harrison returns a solid defense but has some question marks on offense.
Morrilton and Greenwood see a change in philosophies as the Devil Dogs debut a new head coach and the Bulldogs return a solid rushing core.
And while Class AAAA's unprecedented run from 1996 to 1999 has slowly cooled, the feeling around the state is that the whole classification has cooled. 

Conference Preview: 
1. Alma -- At the beginning of 2002, head coach Frank Vines was "just hoping to make the playoffs." In 2001 he thought that they could "be decent this year." In 1999, Coach Vines said he hoped his team would "be able to compete for the conference championship". This proves one simple fact: Never call the Frank Vines betting hotline. The Airedales haven't missed the playoffs since 1990 and have finished third or higher every season with eight conference titles to show for it. This season the ol' coach expects his team to "have a chance to be competitive." So, Alma's my pick to win another conference title.
While the Airedales only return seven starters from last years 12-1 team, the defense returns five of those starters and has a chance to be a very tough once again. Byron Bradley battled for the quarterback position before and inherits it his senior season with the departure of Dallas Smith. The running game could be very successful, especially with a solid offensive line. Four of the front seven return with the defensive backfield as the weakness of the unit. The defense will be tested with four passing attacks on the season. Prediction: (9-1 Regular Season, 6-1 Conference).
2. Harrison -- Nine defensive starters return from a team that was upset on its home turf in the first round of the playoffs. Only four starters return on offense which could be led by either senior Brent Rosson or junior Guy Brown at the quarterback position. Senior Justin McCutcheon (6-2, 210) returns as a load at the fullback position. The weakness for the Goblins on offense is the line where Harrison graduated every starter. The defense should be very tough. Six of the front seven return to battle the good West rushing attacks. Three defensive backs also return to battle against the West's passing games. Prediction: (8-2 Regular Season, 5-2 Conference)
3. Morrilton - The Devil Dogs are one of the more intriguing teams of the conference. Morrilton returns seven starters on both sides of the ball and debuts a new passing attack under first-year head coach
Chris Hill. But, the offense should be a little rusty coming out of the gates and may take a few weeks to find its groove. A very deep receiving corps coupled with a speedy rushing attack could prove very difficult to contain for slower conference members once they hit their stride. The Devil Dogs lines are an early question mark, but a solid linebacking group coupled with a satisfactory group of defensive backs explains why this team is a dark horse for the state championship. But that all hinges on how quickly the offense adjusts to the new system in place, and after the last five years Morrilton needs to be more focused on just making the playoffs.  Prediction: (6-4 Regular Season, 5-2 Conference)
4. Greenwood -- With the last remnants of former passing-minded coach Ronnie Peacock exiting the program, Greenwood finds itself at a crossroads. A quarterback controversy is still ongoing after the
graduation of senior Kirby Vitale. A solid group of returning running backs coupled with the inexperienced quarterback should let Greenwood explore more of its running game. The coaches say they have a good set of receivers, but someone will have to get the ball to them.  The offensive line will be very inexperienced with only one returning starter. Only one starter returns out of the front seven on defense and could take a while to jell. If Greenwood doesn't offset its rushing attack with an effective passing game, then the Bulldogs could drop down in the standings some. Prediction: (7-3 Regular Season, 5-2
Conference)
5. Siloam Springs -- The Panthers return 11 starters in 2003 with most of those returnees on the defensive side of the football. Question marks still linger as three players vie for the starting QB position, but
it appears that the rushing attack could be pretty solid. A good-sized offensive line should make the offense pretty decent, but it might not be on par with the top four. Five of the front seven of the defensive
squad returns along with three of the defensive backs. Except for the playoff season of 2001, Siloam Springs has found the going pretty tough the past couple seasons. But they are also very capable of making another playoff run in 2003. Prediction: (5-5 Overall, 3-4 Conference)
6. Huntsville -- The Eagles were bewildered in their first season of AAAA ball with a lone conference win coming at home against Morrilton. A strong nucleus of players should enable them to compete better in 2003. Seven offensive starters return and are led by one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. All our receivers return also and should make the passing attack pretty formidable as long as the offensive line can produce enough time. The defensive line is experienced with three starters returning, but Huntsville is looking for new linebackers. Both safeties return in the backfield for the Eagles.
Four conference games at home should help Huntsville. Prediction: (4-6 Overall, 3-4 Conference)
7. Greenbrier -- Head coach Scott Schwartz has reinvigorated a program that hasn't seen too much success since it entered AAAA in 1996. But that added excitement might not turn into more wins in 2003.  A
solid group or returning starters will help the Panthers as the coaches expect a more physical team. A solid returning quarterback coupled with experienced backs and receivers could make the offense better. The
defense returns eight starters, but was not all that effective in 2002. A season low of 16 points allowed in week seven enabled Greenbrier to get its only win of the season. Prediction: (2-8 Overall, 1-6 Conference)
8. Clarksville -- The Panthers were the surprise of 2003 by making the playoffs in their first year of AAAA ball. An opening-round upset put them in the top eight of the state. 2003 may be a drastic change. Only one starter returns, but he only started at the last part of the season. Couple that with the fact that Clarksville may only have around 30 players out including a total of four seniors and the Panthers may be in
for a bumpy road.  Inexperience and a tough schedule do not bode well for coach Michael Banning. Prediction: (0-10, 0-7)

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