New chap­ter is in the works for Black­hawk foot­ball

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - SPORTS - ••• Edi­tor’s note: John McGee, an award-win­ning colum­nist, sports writer and writes a reg­u­lar sports col­umn for The Times. He can be con­tacted at prt­ JOHN MCGEE Sports Writer

It’s a new year (read sea­son), and while there may be a lot of new­ness to Pea Ridge foot­ball, es­pe­cially on the of­fen­sive side, some things will re­main the same.

A big thing that will stay the same are the ded­i­cated and sup­port­ive fans and com­mu­nity folks who have done so much to en­cour­age and back their play­ers. The trip to Nashville two years ago saw the Hawks snap the Scrap­pers 26 game win­ning streak with their fans leav­ing the sta­dium in great num­bers once the game was out of reach. Our loss in last year’s semi­fi­nals was as­sured long be­fore the game’s end, but lo­cal fans stuck around to the end and af­ter. Other teams and com­mu­ni­ties have of­ten dis­played less than stel­lar exhibitions of of sports­man­ship and good will, but the folks from the Ridge have been the stan­dard set­ters in mag­na­nim­ity in vic­tory and grace in de­feat. Above all, the fans of this lit­tle town have been with their Hawks through thick or thin, all the way to the end, win lose or draw.

While a lot of tal­ented se­niors of the Class of 2018 may have de­parted cam­pus, many things re­main in place to bode well for the team this fall. First off, the foot­ball staff is in­tact from the 2017 cam­paign af­ter los­ing both the of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tors from the 2016 sea­son. With foot­ball, con­ti­nu­ity is a big thing.

Head coach Stephen Neal will be en­ter­ing into his third sea­son at the helm with an im­pres­sive 25-4 won-loss record. Cody Alexan­der will be co­or­di­nat­ing the var­sity of­fense for the sec­ond sea­son, with Nathan Clay­tor work­ing with the de­fen­sive line, Asa Po­teete di­rect­ing the of­fen­sive line, Josh Reynolds train­ing the re­ceivers, Matt Easter­ling coach­ing the lineback­ers, Ja­cob Mey­ers tu­tor­ing the de­fen­sive backs, and John King, the long­est serv­ing foot­ball coach­ing staff mem­ber in school his­tory, work­ing as an as­sis­tant. Coach Neal will again serve as the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor.

The 2018 foot­ball ros­ter boasts 90 play­ers head­ing into fall train­ing. While that num­ber will likely fluc­tu­ate over the next few weeks, it is still the largest as­sem­blage of play­ers that the ’Hawks have ever had step up to the plate. Twenty of the play­ers are head­ing into their se­nior sea­son.

Most of the Class of 2019 will be work­ing on the line, mean­ing tack­les, guards, cen­ter or ends. In­cluded in that group are Gan­non Con­rad, Toby Dun­ning, Mike Mahoney, Xavier Aguilar, Trevon Mc­Don­ald, Dal­ton Nes­bitt, Arnoldo Ras­con, Nathan Wood, Blake Blevin, Brody We­ber and Cooper Fer­gu­son.

The se­nior line­backer corps in­cludes Tris­tan Brewer, Tyler An­der­son and Gar­rett Brooks. Se­nior de­fen­sive backs in­clude Car­son Rhine, Justin Koon and Ma­son Har­well. The se­nior re­ceivers in­clude Koon, An­der­son, Brooks, Toby Dun­ning, Pey­ton Beck­mann and Pey­ton Gal­braith. Tris­tan Yager and Dun­ning will log some time car­ry­ing the pigskin.

The Black­hawks are very ex­pe­ri­enced over­all on the de­fen­sive side of things and that will be ex­tremely im­por­tant with the ’Hawks up­grad­ing their sched­ule to in­clude an all-5A op­po­nent lineup in their three pre-con­fer­ence games. Up un­til last year, the ’Hawks usu­ally played nearly all 3A class op­po­nents, teams that they have been play­ing for decades when Pea Ridge was a much smaller school. Farm­ing­ton was added as the first 5A school to play the ’Hawks with Maumelle and Har­ri­son added to the sched­ule this sea­son, the first time to play ei­ther op­po­nent.

The ’Hawks will start the sea­son play­ing two teams they have never met be­fore in Har­ri­son and Maumelle. Their last pre-con­fer­ence game will be against Farm­ing­ton. While the ’Hawks are 4-6 against the Car­di­nals since 2001, the ’Hawk have won the last four bat­tles.

The ’Hawks’ open con­fer­ence play is Sept. 21 against Gen­try, with a win­ning 9-5 mark since 2001 win­ning the last five. The sec­ond con­fer­ence game on Sept. 28, will be with Lin­coln, whom the ’Hawks have beaten 10 of the last 11 times they have matched up.

The con­fer­ence sea­son will toughen on Oct. 5 when they visit Gravette. While hav­ing a los­ing 4-8 mark against the Li­ons, the ’Hawks have won three of the last four. The next game will be at Prairie Grove on Oct. 12. The Tigers have won nine of 12 against the ’Hawks, but the teams have split the last four games. On Oct. 19, Ber­ryville, a team the ’Hawks have beaten eight of the last 14 times, but four of the last five, comes to town.

New con­fer­ence mem­ber Green For­est has a los­ing record against Pea Ridge (67) with the ’Hawks win­ning five of the last six with the only blem­ish com­ing from a for­feit by the ’Hawks. The sea­son fi­nale will again be against Shiloh, a team they have beaten four of the last five times they have played.

Over the past four years, the ’Hawks have the sec­ond best com­bined con­fer­ence record (2014-2017). The over­all records of this years 4A- teams is as fol­lows.

Though the Hooten’s peo­ple rank the ’Hawks well ahead of Prairie Grove (fourth com­pared to 11th) in their state poll, the coaches of the 4A-1 still ranked the Tigers as the team to beat in 2018. With the Tigers av­er­ag­ing more than 10 wins a year for the past seven sea­sons, Prairie Grove is never a bad choice to se­lect as the team for the oth­ers to chase.

Danny Ab­shier is the long­time coach of the Tigers and is hop­ing to notch his 300th win at the school this sea­son. His ca­reer record at the school is 189-102 and he has been the skip­per of the Wash­ing­ton County school since the 1990s.

What most folks don’t re­mem­ber or know is that Ab­shier was nearly fired not long into his tenure. Back in the ’90s, the Tigers were not the su­per suc­cess­ful team they have be­come since the new mil­len­nium and the first cou­ple of years for Ab­shier were a bit rocky and there were some calls for his re­moval by dis­grun­tled fans. The school stuck with him, though, and he has built a peren­nial con­tender, win­ning a least a part of five of the last six con­fer­ence ti­tles.

The Tigers will have an ex­pe­ri­enced de­fense but be­yond that, there are a lot of ques­tion marks. How­ever, I re­mem­ber think­ing this on other years be­fore this one and though he may lack a lot of sea­soned play­ers, he mounts one suc­cess­ful cam­paign af­ter an­other. The Tigers have had four dif­fer­ent start­ing quar­ter­backs for four straight years but they have not missed a beat. Who­ever will take the field will likely be a threat.

Prairie Grove turns out line­men in big num­bers ev­ery year, with the younger ones step­ping right in af­ter the older ones grad­u­ate. They ex­pect to win and they will never bad. The ’Hawks have split the last four games and this year will be a bat­tle like the last four.

Shiloh is per­haps ranked the low­est they have ever been in the pre-sea­son. They were ranked 15th to start last sea­son and this year they are 16th to be­gin.

The pri­vate school boys from Spring­dale counted only seven vic­to­ries in 2017, with the school’s head coach Jeff Con­away weirdly blam­ing Pea Ridge for their lack­lus­ter show­ing.

Con­away re­marked that it was hard keep­ing his play­ers fo­cused all year be­cause of his play­ers’ ob­ses­sion with beat­ing the Black­hawks. True enough, Con­away lost his first four en­coun­ters with the Black­hawks, but he also lost his first four en­coun­ters with Prairie Grove as well. One would think that a team would be much bet­ter off if they just played a game at a time and not be look­ing down the road.

Shiloh did man­age to beat the ’Hawks 17-14 in the sea­son fi­nale, but only af­ter the ’Hawks had al­ready wrapped up the con­fer­ence ti­tle and the No. 1 seed headed into the play­offs. A few years ago, the ’Hawks faced an un­de­feated Prairie Grove team with Pea Ridge fac­ing the end of their sea­son should they lose. The Tigers had al­ready clinched the ti­tle and top seed and was just cruis­ing into the play­offs. The re­sult? A Pea Ridge vic­tory.

Last year, fol­low­ing the win over the ’Hawks, Shiloh was crushed by Stuttgart 28-7 to end their sea­son with the ’Hawks tak­ing their next three games to land in the semi­fi­nals.

Shiloh was shocked last year by Gravette who de­feated them 24-19 for their first ever win over the pri­va­teers. The Li­ons have a new coach and a new pro­gram so maybe their win over Shiloh may be a trend into the fu­ture.

Gravette has usu­ally fielded a good team over the years, and they re­cently signed a new coach from Jenks, Okla. Doug Green­wood was one of the se­nior coaches in a tra­di­tion­ally pow­er­house pro­gram in Jenks. Over the last dozen or so years, Jenks and neigh­bor­ing school Tulsa Union have dom­i­nated the big school foot­ball land­scape in the Sooner state, way more of­ten than not, played each other in the state cham­pi­onship game.

Green­wood in­her­its a team that has been los­ing ros­ter depth the past few years due to the CTE scare that some me­dia out­lets and news or­ga­ni­za­tions have been hyp­ing. Even though, the chief “ev­i­dence” scar­ing par­ents from al­low­ing their kids to par­tic­i­pate in the game was in even mea­sures ex­ag­ger­ated or made up, 2017 was the first year on record that saw a drop in high school foot­ball player num­bers across the United States.

While play­ing with or get­ting con­cus­sions is a se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion, the in­ci­dences of it hap­pen­ing are quite small. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the rate among prop­erly trained, con­di­tioned and equipped high school play­ers is ex­tremely small. In con­trast, those kinds of in­juries are much more com­mon among high school soc­cer play­ers but has any­one seen ar­ti­cles about that?

I do be­lieve that the new sys­tem in Gravette will make the Li­ons more com­pet­i­tive. They have more than 30 play­ers in the sev­enth grade this sea­son with their hav­ing won the past two NWA ele­men­tary foot­ball league ti­tles. Hav­ing a grand­son among those 30 ath­letes gives me a lit­tle in­sight into what might be com­ing down the road from the west county school.

Just like the past sev­eral years, the bot­tom half of the con­fer­ence will be markedly less for­mi­da­ble than the top four. Lin­coln lacks size but re­turns a lot of skill per­form­ers. Gen­try might be a con­tender for the fifth seed but Ber­ryville, with only one con­fer­ence win in four years, is prob­a­bly sit­ting at home this post sea­son.

At least the Bob­cats have a great chance to avoid the base­ment this year. Huntsville moved up to 5A with Green For­est tak­ing their place in the 4A-1. The GF Tigers were 2-8 last year in the 3A-1 and have a lack of ex­pe­ri­ence as well as speed.

So will the ’Hawks re­tain the No. 1 seed or will Prairie Grove re­take it?

Will Shiloh stop mak­ing ex­cuses and just start play­ing and will the new Gravette head coach bring his win­ning ways into the Li­ons’ heads to boost their chances?

To get the an­swers, come out this fall on Fri­day nights and take in some games.

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