Over the past 10 years, the 7-A Conference has been dominated by teams in the 7-A West. Whether it be Fayetteville, Bentonville, or Springdale Har-Ber, the road to the 7-A State Championship goes through the 7-A West. Here is a recap of the 2015 season and a preview of what the 2016 season may hold in store. We’ll look at just how strong the 7-A Conference actually is.
Again, to kick things off, the 7-A West has been the power in the 7-A Conference for a decade. The 2015 season was no different than the previous 9 years. Three teams emerged head and shoulders above the rest in the 7-A West; Fayetteville, Springdale Har-Ber, and Bentonville were the powers in the west. These three schools dominated the rest of the conference during the course of the 2015 season. From the start of pre-season practice, any of these three schools had a realistic chance of winning the state championship.
During 7-A West Conference play, the Springdale Har-Ber Wildcats ripped through the rest of the conference. Har-Ber went undefeated in conference play; including wins over rivals Fayetteville and Bentonville. Har-Ber was fortunate to have senior leadership and solid production out of quarterback Fuller Chandler and running back Luke Hannon. Chandler passed for over 2,000 yards and 28 touchdowns, while Hannon rushed for over 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. Har-Ber will have holes to feel at the quarterback and running back spots in 2016, but the team is talented and Coach Chris Wood should have no trouble keeping the Wildcats in the thick of things in the 7-A West.
Going into the 2015 football season, the Bentonville Tigers’ faithful were worried about what effect the retirement of Barry Lunney would have on the program. Coach Jody Grant and the Tigers quickly calmed the fears of fans and put the rest of the 7-A Conference on notice that it would be business as usual for the Tigers. Behind the arm of quarterback Kasey Ford, the Tigers marched to a 10-2 record on the season and a 6-1 record in the 7-A West Conference. Ford was named to the All-State team as a senior; and replacing him will not be easy for Bentonville in 2016. However, Bentonville is similar to Har-Ber in that respect and the drop off may not be as much as one might expect; although adding another high school to the mix will create more questions in Bentonville.
The Fayetteville Bulldogs have set the bar high in terms of performance over the past five years. In 2015, Fayetteville played well in conference play, but turned it up a notch during the playoff run. Junior quarterback Taylor Powell put up excellent numbers, during the 2015 season. Powell passed for over 3,000 yards and 49 touchdowns. Powell will make Fayetteville a dangerous team in 2016, and with Brandon Rock returning at running back all signs point toward another playoff run for the Purple Dogs in 2016. On the defensive side of the ball, Fayetteville has defensive tackle Akial Byers returning for his senior season. Byers has been offered a scholarship from Alabama and Mississippi State and has the potential to take over a game. Fayetteville is the defending state champions and the rest of the 7-A Conference will have to take the fight to them in order to dethrone them.
The rest of the 7-A West also has quality teams, but the conference is top heavy. The 7-A West is a Murder’s Row from top to bottom. Over the past two seasons, Fort Smith Northside has had one of the best defenses in the state. The problem for the Grizzlies in 2015 was on the offensive side of the ball. Fort Smith Northside could never find any consistency on offense and they will need some on both sides of the ball in 2016.
Fort Smith Southside finished with an 8-5 record during the 2015 season. Southside made a short playoff run and knocked off Cabot, but fell against conference rival Springdale Har-Ber. Southside’s defense was a strong unit last season. Linebacker Si Kilinc performed well and, at the end of the season, was named to the All-Letterman team. Southside, will have to find some new team leaders in 2016, but I do not expect the talent level to drop off that much.
Springdale, Rogers, and Rogers-Heritage are teams that will continue to improve in 2016. Zak Clark has the Springdale Bulldogs winning again and the goal is to advance in the playoffs in 2016. Springdale defeated both Rogers and Rogers-Heritage and will be looking to keep the high-powered offense running on all cylinders. Springdale will have to find a replacement for quarterback Jack Lindsey, who will be walking on at Arkansas. However, Springdale has the numbers to continue building on what Zak Clark accomplished in 2015.
For Rogers and Rogers-Heritage, it is a little more complicated, due to the fact that both schools will be welcoming new coaches in 2016. Rogers primarily ran the option last season, and were in numerous games before falling apart at the end. For the Rogers-Heritage War Eagles, 2015 was a tough season; but all signs point to a rebound in 2016. The War Eagles and Mounties should both be improved but may be several years away from contending for a conference title.
The 7-A/6A East has been controlled by North Little Rock and Cabot over the past few years. Cabot stormed through the season undefeated and once again won the 7-A/6A East Conference. Cabot used a strong defense in route to a 10-0 regular season record. Cabot has always been very consistent, and another playoff appearance in 2016 should not be that difficult to achieve. Cabot runs an option style offense that can be difficult to defend and it should keep opposing defenses off balance next season.
North Little Rock came into the 2015 season looking for stability in the coaching ranks. Jamie Mitchell came in and helped the Charging Wildcats to a 7-5 record during the season. The season started off with tough losses to Pine Bluff and Cabot, but the Charging Wildcats were able to recover and have a winning season. North Little Rock was able to reel off 7 straight wins before falling to Bentonville in the playoffs. North Little Rock will have to find a replacement for defensive tackle Tre Chism, but this should continue to be a dangerous team in 2016.
The Jonesboro Hurricane have been one of the most consistent teams in the state over the past 10 years. The Hurricane always seems to be in the thick of things, when it comes to challenging for a playoff spot. Last season, Jonesboro finished with an 8-4 record on the season and a 5-2 record in conference play. The Hurricane will have quarterback A.J. Aycock returning for his junior season in 2016. Aycock passed for almost 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Jonesboro should be playoff contenders once again in 2016.
The Little Rock Central Tigers have faced difficult seasons over the past 7 years. A dismal 3-7 record in 2015 is not what the Central High School faithful expected. Central got off to a rough start against Hot Springs Lakeside and they were never able to right the ship during the 2015 season. Central will have Andre Bradley returning for his junior season and he is expected to be in the mix for the starting running back spot. Wins over Searcy, Mountain Home, and Marion were positives for the Tigers but those few victories were not enough to clinch a playoff spot. Central will face some difficult challenges in 2016, but they have potential to improve and perhaps clinch a playoff spot.
West Memphis improved on the 3 wins from 2014 and racked up 5 in the win column during 2015. The Blue Devils were able to clinch a playoff spot last season. Running back Martavious Thomas had an impressive season in 2015 and is looking to build on that success during 2016. Thomas rushed for 739 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. A tough loss to eventual state champion Fayetteville gave West Memphis a sense of what they need to improve upon in 2016. Fans should expect West Memphis to be playoff contenders in 2016.
The Searcy Lions surprised several people last season. The Lions were able to rebound nicely from a 4 win 2014 season and pick up 6 wins and a playoff spot in 2015. Wins over Batesville, Morrilton, and Greene County Tech gave the Lions early momentum and a strong start to the 2015 season. Searcy had some bumps in the road with losses to Central and North Little Rock, but 2015 was a solid season for the Lions. Searcy would fall to El Dorado in the playoffs, but a 6-5 record and a playoff berth gives the Lions momentum for the 2016 season.
For Marion and Mountain Home, the past few seasons have been difficult. Marion improved on the 1-10 record from 2014 and was able to advance to the playoffs with a 5-7 before being defeated by Greenwood. Marion should continue to improve in 2016. Mountain Home may continue to struggle in 2016. The Bombers finished 1-9 in 2015 and find wins difficult to come by in such a talented conference. However, 2016 is a new year and Mountain Home should be improved; whether or not that translates to more wins remains to be seen.
The 7-A/6A Central is one of the most interesting conferences in the state of Arkansas. Three teams have continually set the bar high in this conference. Conway, Greenwood, and Bryant have been the class of this conference for a number of years. However, every team in this conference is dangerous and worthy of a closer look.
The Conway Wampus Cats did not have the season that they expected in 2015. The Wampus Cats finished with a 6-6 record on the season and 4-3 in the conference. Conway was able to clinch a playoff spot and advance in the playoffs with a win over Springdale; but the Wampus Cats expected to go much further. In 2016, Conway will have to find a replacement for quarterback Breylin Smith, who played well during the course of his high school career. One thing that is certain, it is a mistake to count out Conway at any point in the season.
The Greenwood Bulldogs have put together a dynasty over the past decade. The Bulldogs are always in the playoff picture, and more often than not, in the state championship picture. Coach Rick Jones led the Bulldogs to the 6-A state championship but came up just short against the Pine Bluff Zebras. Greenwood will have quarterback Luke Hales returning and should once again be a threat to win the 7-A/6A Central in 2016. Look for the Bulldogs to once again contend for the state championship.
Consistency has become the name of the game for the Bryant Hornets. Bryant finished the 2015 season with another 9 win season. Bryant reeled off 6 wins in a row before falling to Greenwood. Bryant would rebound and not lose again until they came up against Fayetteville in the state playoffs. Bryant has a talented player in the form of DeAmonte Terry. I had the chance to scout Terry in January and came away very impressed with the skill set he possesses. Bryant should be playoff and conference contenders, once again in 2016.
The 2015 season did not go according to plan for the Little Rock Catholic Rockets. Catholic had an up and down season and struggled to capture momentum. The season started off with a win over North Little Rock but the Rockets could never seem to right the ship after that and finished 4-7 on the season. Catholic was able to clinch a playoff spot but fell to Fort Smith Southside in the playoffs. The Rockets will have to find a new quarterback in 2016 with Andre Sale moving on to college but Catholic may, once again contend for a playoff spot.
It was a difficult season for the Russellville Cyclones in 2014, winning only 2 games. The 2015 season saw an improvement, with the Cyclones winning 5 games and clinching a playoff spot. Last season was marked by some tough games including losses to Greenwood and Bryant. However, the Cyclones were able to make into the playoffs. The Cyclones picked up a win against Sheridan but fell to eventual 6-A state champions Pine Bluff. Cale Fulsom is returning at quarterback and is looking to build upon a season in which he passed for 21 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. Look for Russellville to be playoff contenders in 2016.
Coach Doug Loughridge and the Alma Airedales won 4 of the 5 first games last season but finished with a 7-5 record. The Airedales have Noah Dotson returning for his senior season in 2016. Dotson passed for 14 touchdowns and threw 6 interceptions in 2015. Dotson was effective on the ground, rushing for over 500 yards on the season. Alma could be a very dangerous team in 2016. Keep an eye out for the Airedales.
Van Buren and Siloam Springs are 2 teams in the 7-A/6-Central that should improve in 2016. Van Buren finished with a 2-8 record in 2015. The Pointers will have to find a new quarterback and new wide receiver with Jordan Barlow and Jaylynn Dye both graduating and moving on. For the Siloam Springs Panthers, the 2015 season started off with 3 straight victories. However, Siloam Springs would have difficulty keeping the momentum going during the course of the season and finished the season 4-6. The Panthers hope to improve in 2016.
The 6 South was not covered in this article, due to the fact that the teams in the 6-A South deserve an article of their own a little later on. What is evident about the 7-A Conference is that it is very tough, and the Western part of the state continues to have a tight hold on state championships. Fayetteville, Bentonville, and Springdale Har-Ber are all possible contenders that could easily wind up in Little Rock for the championship in November. The 2015 season was an excellent one for a number of teams and respect should be given to all the students and coaches from all the teams for putting together a great 2015 for the fans to enjoy. All eyes are on the future but the past is always remembered. Get ready for the 2016 season; it will be here before we know it.