Archive for September, 2013

Rex's Rankings: After four weeks

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Four weeks down.

Six weeks to go in the high school regular season.

Here’s what we have learned:

— Cabot appears to be really good.

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The 48-32 victory over North Little Rock was impressive. The Panthers have started 4-0 and soared to No. 3 in our overall rankings. It looks like Cabot will be the team out of central Arkansas best able to challenge the northwest Arkansas powers in the Class 7A playoffs.

— No one in Class 6A can contend with Greenwood. If Fayetteville loses and Greenwood keeps winning, we’ll move Greenwood to No. 1 overall. That’s pretty amazing when you consider that Greenwood was competing in Class 5A just a couple of seasons ago.

— We continue to have Pulaski Academy at No. 1 and Camden Fairview at No. 2 in Class 5A, but it’s hard to say which is the best team. They seem to be on a collision course for the playoffs.

— Arkadelphia survived at home against Nashville, but Ashdown and Malvern could give the Badgers problems. They play in what is without a doubt the toughest conference in Class 4A.

— All of the top five teams in Class 3A are capable of winning a state championship if they get hot at the right time.

— The same goes for Class 2A: All of the top five teams are capable of winning a state title.

Here are the rankings for this week:

Overall

1. Fayetteville

2. Greenwood

3. Cabot

4. Pulaski Academy

5. Camden Fairview

6. Bentonville

7. Fort Smith Southside

8. Conway

9. Arkadelphia

10. Pine Bluff

Class 7A

1. Fayetteville

2. Cabot

3. Bentonville

4. Fort Smith Southside

5. Conway

Class 6A

1. Greenwood

2. Pine Bluff

3. Lake Hamilton

4. Russellville

5. Jonesboro

Class 5A

1. Pulaski Academy

2. Camden Fairview

3. White Hall

4. Hope

5. Forrest City

Class 4A

1. Arkadelphia

2. Booneville

3. Pine Bluff Dollarway

4. Valley View

5. Ashdown

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Harding Academy

3. Barton

4. Glen Rose

5. Fordyce

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. Carlisle

3. Bearden

4. East Poinsett County

5. Dierks

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College football: Week 5

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

After picking nine games last week, I realized that I had predicted the Arkansas team to win eight of those contests.

I love this state, but I’m not a homer. My record is important to me. Each week, I select the teams I think will win, not necessarily the teams I want to win. And I thought every Arkansas team last week would win with the exception of UAPB.

As it turned out, the record was 7-2.

Arkansas teams in the Great American Conference went 5-0 against opponents from Oklahoma, just as had been predicted.

UCA edged Missouri State in Springfield, just as had been predicted. The pick here was UCA winning 21-20. It was 17-13.

UAPB lost by less than a touchdown to Alcorn State, just as had been predicted.

In the end, the two FBS teams from Arkansas were the ones that didn’t come through.

Had the Razorbacks prevented that last Rutgers touchdown, the Southern Fried prediction of 24-22 in favor of Arkansas would have been almost on the money.

It was, of course, not to be.

Who could have guessed a few years back that Arkansas would go “0 for Rutgers” during a two-year period?

Now the Hogs enter that four-game stretch of Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. This isn’t going to be fun for the Razorback true believers.

Just as was the case last year in Fayetteville, Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova picked Arkansas apart. This time, he completed 22 of his 43 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. In two games against the Razorbacks, Nova has passed for 743 yards and eight touchdowns. In the fourth quarter Saturday, he was seven of 13 for 147 yards and two touchdowns.

Nova has just four 300-yard passing games in his career, and half of them have come against the Razorbacks.

Maybe it’s a good thing that Arkansas will replace Rutgers with Texas Tech the next two years.

The bigger story, though, was the way Arkansas’ offensive line was whipped down the stretch. That poor performance prevented the Hogs from having the type of ball-control offense that Bret Bielema prefers. The goal was to limit Nova’s time on the field. Because of the futile effort of its offensive line, Arkansas was unable to achieve that goal. The Razorbacks had just three yards rushing on six carries in the fourth quarter. The total fourth-quarter yardage was 35.

The Alex Collins-Jonathan Williams streak of 100-yard games came to a screeching halt.

Collins came in averaging 139 yards a game. He had 63 against Rutgers.

Williams came in averaging 131 yards a game. He had 25 against Rutgers.

The biggest egg of the weekend was laid by Arkansas State. The Red Wolves were just awful in a 31-7 loss to Memphis, a game that most people had picked ASU to win.

It was already 24-7 in favor of the Tigers at halftime as Memphis won its first game of the season.

ASU is 2-2 with a trip to Missouri looming this weekend. Even the Red Wolves’ earlier Sun Belt Conference win over Troy now looks less impressive considering the Trojans’ 62-7 loss last Saturday to a mediocre Mississippi State team.

It was ASU’s most lopsided loss in the series against Memphis since 1997. The Red Wolves had just 255 yards of offense, and quarterback Adam Kennedy was sacked seven times. Memphis, meanwhile, had 505 yards of offense with 329 yards of that coming on the ground.

Last week’s 7-2 prediction performance made the record 25-6 for the year.

On to the picks for Week 5:

Texas A&M 41, Arkansas 24 — The word is that Johnny Manziel doesn’t accept checks or credit cards. So bring cash to Fayetteville on Saturday if you want an autograph. The 3-1 Aggies warmed up for their game in Arkansas with a 42-13 win over SMU. Manziel had 244 yards passing with one touchdown in that game. He ran for 102 yards with two more touchdowns. I’ll say this for the Arkansas defense: It plays hard. But effort alone won’t be enough against Manziel & Co.

Missouri 45, Arkansas State 30 — Missouri is off to a 3-0 start after wins of 58-14 over Murray State, 38-23 over Toledo and 45-28 over Indiana. The record will be 4-0 unless the Red Wolves play far, far better than they played at Memphis. In Missouri’s victory over Indiana, James Franklin threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns as the Tigers won in Bloomington for the first time since 1953. Franklin finished 32 of 47 passing. Dorial Green-Beckham (you’ll remember when the Hog fans thought ol’ DGB was headed to Fayetteville) had eight catches for 105 yards and one touchdown. Unfortunately, ASU will counter with a defense that has allowed almost 1,200 yards in the previous two games.

Southwestern Oklahoma 25, UAM 21 — A week after ending an 11-game losing streak, UAM made it two victories in a row with a 22-20 decision in Monticello over a winless Northwestern Oklahoma squad. The task will be much tougher this week against Southwestern Oklahoma in Weatherford. Southwestern upset Harding to begin the season and then posted a victory at Arkansas Tech. The first loss of the season came Saturday in Magnolia against a very good Southern Arkansas team. The Boll Weevils, however, are much improved over the 1-10 team of a year ago.

Nicholls State 37, Arkansas Tech 27 — FCS schools often play FBS schools to earn a guaranteed check. That’s just what Nicholls State did in the season opener when it went to Oregon and absorbed a 66-3 beating. Since then, Nicholls has defeated Western Michigan by a score of 27-23, lost to Louisiana-Lafayette by a score of 70-7 and defeated Langston by a score of 42-22. Just as Nicholls went to Oregon to make money, some Division II teams go to FCS schools to earn a few bucks. That’s why Arkansas Tech is heading to far south Louisiana this weekend. Under new coach Raymond Monica, the Wonder Boys are off to a 2-1 start with wins over Northwestern Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene sandwiched around a loss to Southwestern Oklahoma. In the 49-7 victory last Saturday at Southern Nazarene, Tech senior Ketrich Harmon rushed for 132 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the first Wonder Boy to rush for more than 100 yards in a game in five years. The Wonder Boys had 277 yards rushing, their highest total in almost four years. For some reason, I expect Tech to keep this game close.

Harding 50, Southern Nazarene 28 — Southern Nazarene is winless and should remain that way following a visit to Searcy on Saturday. After being upset by Southwestern Oklahoma in the opener, Harding bounced back with an easy victory over Northwestern Oklahoma. The Bisons have had two weeks to prepare for this game. The two new members of the GAC — Northwestern and Southern Nazarene — are struggling. The real challenges for the Bisons lie ahead.

Ouachita 33, Southeastern Oklahoma 32 — The Tigers finally play their home opener on the final weekend of September. Ouachita, the only college program in the state with five consecutive winning seasons, is off to a 2-0 start with road victories over Southern Nazarene and East Central Oklahoma. Southeastern outscored Southern Arkansas, 56-50, in the season opener and then was upset by UAM. In the third game of the season, Southeastern gave No. 8 Henderson its first real test as the Reddies trailed 28-24 at the end of the third quarter. Henderson wound up winning by a score of 44-35, but Southeastern has shown it can score. Saturday night’s game in Arkadelphia may be the best of the weekend in the GAC.

Henderson 50, East Central Oklahoma 30 — The Reddies were on cruise control in scoring 157 points in the first eight quarters of the season with victories over Southern Nazarene and McKendree. Things were much tougher in Durant, Okla., last Saturday night as the Henderson defense struggled. On offense, Reddie quarterback Kevin Rodgers completed 27 of 50 passes for 384 yards and one touchdown. East Central, which comes in with a 1-2 record, will score some points Saturday afternoon in Arkadelphia. The Reddies, who deserve their Top 10 spot in Division II, will score a lot more.

Southern Arkansas 51, Northwestern Oklahoma 28 — Southern Arkansas has bounced back from that season-opening loss to Southeastern Oklahoma with solid victories over decent East Central Oklahoma and Southwestern Oklahoma teams. New GAC addition Northwestern Oklahoma shouldn’t prove too tough a challenge despite the long road trip for the Muleriders. In last Saturday’s 20-17 Mulerider victory over Southwestern Oklahoma, SAU quarterback Tyler Sykora completed 23 of 40 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns. He likely will top 400 yards passing this week.

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Rex’s Rankings: Three weeks in the books

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

After three weeks of the high school football season, there are a few things we know:

— Greenwood just might be the best team in the state even though it’s not in the largest classification.

— The Cabot Panthers are back. Cabot is off to a great start and now belongs in the overall Top 10 and the Top 5 of Class 7A.

— Fayetteville, Bentonville, Springdale Har-Ber and Fort Smith Southside will beat up on each other, but one of those teams could well emerge as the champion in Class 7A in December at War Memorial Stadium.

— Camden Fairview and Pulaski Academy are the class of Class 5A. Which team is best? Flip a coin.

— With easy wins over two Class 6A schools and one Class 5A school, Arkadelphia now deserves to be in the overall Top 10 even though it’s a 4A school. The Badgers’ game against Nashville this Friday is one of the top games in the state.

— It’s hard to choose between Charleston, Harding Academy and Barton in Class 3A. Any of those teams could win a state title.

— Junction City beat Bearden, 13-8, on Friday night. But Bearden could still find its way to the championship game. Gurdon, Carlisle and East Poinsett County also appear to be teams that are capable of winning a Class 2A state title.

Here are the rankings:

Overall

1. Fayetteville

2. Greenwood

3. North Little Rock

4. Pulaski Academy

5. Camden Fairview

6. Cabot

7. Springdale Har-Ber

8. Bentonville

9. Arkadelphia

10. Fort Smith Southside

Class 7A

1. Fayetteville

2. North Little Rock

3. Cabot

4. Springdale Har-Ber

5. Bentonville

Class 6A

1. Greenwood

2. Russellville

3. Jonesboro

4. Lake Hamilton

5. Pine Bluff

Class 5A

1. Pulaski Academy

2. Camden Fairview

3. White Hall

4. Hope

5. Forrest City

Class 4A

1. Arkadelphia

2. Booneville

3. Pine Bluff Dollarway

4. Valley View

5. Ashdown

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Harding Academy

3. Barton

4. Glen Rose

5. Fordyce

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. Gurdon

3. Carlisle

4. Bearden

5. East Poinsett County

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College football: Week 4

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

The running game was the focus last Saturday in Fayetteville. It was unlike anything in recent Arkansas Razorback history.

Once more, both Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins topped the 100-yard mark. We’re getting used to this, aren’t we?

Collins is the first freshman in Southeastern Conference history to top the 100-yard mark in each of his first three games. He’s the first freshman at any FBS school to do it since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson in 2004. That’s not bad company.

Arkansas threw just 11 passes for 69 yards, the fewest passes thrown by an Arkansas team since the Houston Nutt era.

Seeing that the Golden Eagles have now lost 15 consecutive game — the longest FBS losing streak — this obviously wasn’t a good Southern Mississippi team. USM is now 34-107-3 through the years against teams that are now members of the SEC. But in this era of high-scoring college football games, it’s impressive anytime you can hold an opponent without a touchdown. USM was just four of 15 on third down and ran only four offensive plays in the fourth quarter. So hats off to the Hog defense.

Now, on to saying something that sounds very strange to me: “The Razorbacks play in New Jersey on Saturday.”

New Jersey?

OK, we’ll hold off on the Jersey jokes. No references to the mob, chemical plants, landfills (no doubt with Jimmy Hoffa’s body in one of them), traffic-choked turnpikes and people who use Bo Pelini’s favorite word a lot. We won’t even reference the cast of Jersey Shore.

There’s a football game to be played.

We were 8-2 on the picks last week (we had picked UCA to win by one point and the Bears lost by one point; we also had not predicted that UAM would end its 11-game losing streak), making the record 18-4 for the year.

On to the picks for Week 4:

Arkansas 24, Rutgers 22 — It’s hard to see how this Arkansas team gets to 6-6 and a bowl game without a win this Saturday afternoon. Rutgers lost its opener in overtime at Fresno State and has since picked on Norfolk State (38-0) and Eastern Michigan (28-10). The Hogs keep the ball on the ground, keep it out of the hands of the Rutgers offense and run that clock. Williams and Collins both top 100 yards rushing again, and Arkansas somehow escapes with a victory prior to beginning the brutal SEC portion of the schedule.

Arkansas State 35, Memphis 33 — This has been a nice little regional rivalry. It’s a shame that it’s apparently coming to an end at the Liberty Bowl on Saturday afternoon. It will be the 58th time the two schools have played, and ASU has won four of the past five games between the squads. I suspect that 1-4 record in the past five games against ASU is what really rankles Memphis. On Thursday of last week in Jonesboro, ASU posted a thrilling 41-34 victory against Troy as Fredi Knighten out of Pulaski Academy scored from 13 yards out with 3:56 left. Frankie Jackson then came up with an interception for the Red Wolves in the final minute of play. Troy lost despite 614 yards of offense in the game. The Red Wolves finished with 539 yards of offense. Here’s a fact that many Arkansans don’t realize: Despite having its fourth head coach in as many years, Arkansas State is 16-1 in its past 17 Sun Belt games. That’s impressive in anybody’s book. Memphis comes in with an 0-2 record, having lost by scores of 28-14 to Duke and 17-15 to Middle Tennessee. Once more, they’re asking the all-important question at Memphis: “When does basketball season start?”

UCA 21, Missouri State 20 — As noted, we picked the Bears to win by a point on the road last week, and they lost by a point. OK, we’ll try it again. We’ll pick UCA by one in a road game. Last Saturday, Tennessee-Martin blocked a 42-yard UCA field goal attempt on the final play of the game to hang on by a score of 24-23. The Bears began the season highly ranked. They’re now 1-2 and struggling to find a running game. UCA trailed 14-0 at the half and had only 137 yards of offense during the first two quarters. Missouri State is 0-3 with losses of 23-17 to Northwestern State of Louisiana, 28-14 to Iowa and 41-38 to Murray State. The game is in Springfield, but maybe the Bears will show up for two halves rather than one half this time around.

Alcorn State 14, UAPB 12 — The defending SWAC champions from Pine Bluff find themselves 0-3 following a 40-39 loss at home to Alabama State in the conference opener last Saturday. The Golden Lions had a nine-point lead in that game with nine minutes remaining but couldn’t hold on. Alcorn State from Lorman, Miss., comes in with a record of 2-1 following victories of 63-12 over Edward Waters (who’s he?) and 35-28 over Mississippi Valley State. Those wins were sandwiched around a 51-7 loss to Mississippi State in Starkville (as long as the check cashes).

UAM 42, Northwestern Oklahoma 22 — Following an 11-game losing streak, the Boll Weevils make it two wins in a row this week against a truly woeful Northwestern Oklahoma team. Last Saturday in Monticello, the Weevils stunned the Southeastern Oklahoma squad that had upset Southern Arkansas just the week before. Colton Morrison passed for 345 yards and four touchdowns for the Weevils. Northwestern Oklahoma, meanwhile, was falling to 0-2 with a 69-0 loss to Harding in Searcy.

Arkansas Tech 30, Southern Nazarene 28 — The Wonder Boys move to 2-1 in the Raymond Monica era with a victory over a Southern Nazarene squad that has lost 82-10 to Henderson and 49-24 to Ouachita in the first two weeks of the season. Tech defeated Northwestern Oklahoma on the road to open the Monica era and then fell 28-17 in its home opener last Saturday to Southwestern Oklahoma. Tech quarterback Luke Halpin was 31 of 49 passing for 296 yards in the loss. He should have even more success against Southern Nazarene.

Henderson 50, Southeastern Oklahoma 19 — What can you say about the Reddies that hasn’t already been said? Henderson has now scored 157 points in eight quarters of football. Last Saturday’s nonconference victim was McKendree from Illinois, 75-14. Reddie quarterback Kevin Rodgers was 31 of 45 passing for 380 yards and five touchdowns. Rodgers, who is early in his junior season, has now passed for 6,117 yards at Henderson. He will light it up again Saturday in Durant, home of the world’s largest peanut.

Ouachita 31, East Central Oklahoma 29 — Ouachita played its worst game of the season last year in a loss at Ada, and the Tigers have to make that trip for a second year in a row. Ouachita won its opener for a seventh consecutive season. The Tigers were sloppy at times in a 49-24 win at Southern Nazarene, but senior tailback Chris Rycraw out of Bryant is the real deal. He scored three touchdowns in only a half of work. East Central defeated UAM in Week 1 and then fell hard to Southern Arkansas.

Southern Arkansas 27, Southwestern Oklahoma 23 — This looks to be the best game of the week in the Great American Conference. Southwestern Oklahoma has been impressive in the first two games with wins over Harding and Arkansas Tech. The Muleriders stumbled in their opener at Southeastern Oklahoma and then recovered nicely in the 50-16 thrashing of East Central. Mulerider quarterback Tyler Sykora passed for 249 yards and four touchdowns in the victory.

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Rex’s Rankings: Two weeks down

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Week 1 of high school football was a good one when it came to how the Arkansas teams fared against out-of-state competition.

Week 2 was not so kind as three of our top five teams went down.

No. 1 Bentonville lost 24-17 to Broken Arrow, an Oklahoma powerhouse.

No. 3 North Little Rock lost 24-23 to South Panola out of Mississippi. South Panola is traditionally one of the best high school teams in the South.

No. 5 Springdale Har-Ber lost 55-29 to a talented team from the middle of Missouri known as Columbia Rock Bridge.

Our best teams in Arkansas still have a ways to go to match up with the best teams from surrounding states, don’t they?

Fayetteville did manage to defeat Jefferson City, Mo., by a score of 34-24. Fayetteville is now our No. 1 team.

The headlines of the week were the “University of Greenwood’s” 40th consecutive victory, 47-7 over Alma, along with Pulaski Academy’s 42-30 win over Warren on Thursday night in a game televised in parts of four states.

Here are the rankings after two weeks of the high school football season:

Overall

1. Fayetteville

2. Greenwood

3. North Little Rock

4. Pulaski Academy

5. Camden Fairview

6. Fort Smith Southside

7. Bentonville

8. Conway

9. Springdale Har-Ber

10. Pine Bluff

Class 7A

1. Fayetteville

2. North Little Rock

3. Fort Smith Southside

4. Bentonville

5. Conway

Class 6A

1. Greenwood

2. Pine Bluff

3. Russellville

4. Jonesboro

5. Lake Hamilton

Class 5A

1. Pulaski Academy

2. Camden Fairview

3. White Hall

4. Shiloh Christian

5. Watson Chapel

Class 4A

1. Arkadelphia

2. Booneville

3. Pine Bluff Dollarway

4. Valley View

5. Ashdown

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Harding Academy

3. Barton

4. Glen Rose

5. Fordyce

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. Gurdon

3. Carlisle

4. Bearden

5. East Poinsett County

 

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The changing face of high school football

Friday, September 13th, 2013

The original version of this story ran in Celebrate Arkansas magazine.

In 1968, Wadie Moore Jr. began working as a sportswriter for the Arkansas Gazette. High school football was a much different sport then than it is now. For one thing, segregation was just starting to end across the state. Towns in east, central and south Arkansas that had long had a black high school playing football and a separate white high school playing football were fielding their first integrated teams.

Moore would remain at the Gazette until it ceased publication in October 1991. For years, he was the go-to media source for everything having to do with high school football in Arkansas. His weekly predictions and rankings were anxiously awaited by players and their parents across the state.

The changes Moore has seen since 1968 go far beyond integration.

“The equipment is better now than when I started covering sports in 1968,” says Moore, who now helps oversee high school football in the state as the assistant executive director of the Arkansas Activities Association. “I recently looked at some football gear and actually wondered for a moment how to put it on. There have been a lot of changes, and there will continue to be equipment changes for safety reasons. The biggest equipment change has been in the design of the helmet.

“Another major change is officiating. Officials are more knowledgeable these days because of their desire to move up in the ranks. Arkansas has its fair share of officials working on the professional and college levels. Most of them got their start working high school football games. They became students of the game. The majority of today’s officials also are in excellent physical shape.”

By the 1972 football season, with integration almost complete, there were five classifications in Arkansas high school sports. The largest was Class 4A. Its members were North Little Rock Ole Main, North Little Rock Northeast, Little Rock Hall, Little Rock Catholic, Little Rock Central, El Dorado, Fort Smith Northside, Pine Bluff and Little Rock Parkview.

There were no schools in the northwest corner of the state in that largest classification in 1972.

Class 3A consisted of two eight-team conferences.

Smaller schools were in Class 2A, Class A and Class B.

There were 184 schools playing football in 1972. Football teams in 1972 that are no longer around include North Little Rock Northeast, Fort Smith St. Anne’s Academy, Altheimer, Eudora, Cotton Plant, Rector, Holly Grove, Lewisville, Delta, Grady, Gould, DeValls Bluff, Arkansas School for the Deaf, Altus, Gillett, Wabbaseka, Bradley and Glenwood.

There are now seven high school athletic classifications with football played in six of those classifications. The state has 211 high schools that field football teams.

Current football teams that weren’t around in 1972 include Rogers Heritage, Springdale Har-Ber, Little Rock Christian, Shiloh Christian in Springdale, Brookland, Cave City, Arkansas Baptist in Little Rock, Central Arkansas Christian in North Little Rock, Melbourne, Episcopal Collegiate in Little Rock, Riverview, Cedarville, Centerpoint, Fountain Lake, Cedar Ridge, Hackett, Hartford, Hector, Magazine, Union Christian Academy in Fort Smith, Western Yell County, Westside Johnson County, Bigelow, Conway Christian, Cutter Morning Star, Jessieville, Two Rivers, Poyen, Quitman, Palestine-Wheatley, Spring Hill, Parkers Chapel and Woodlawn.

With websites, blogs, magazines, television programs, radio shows and more dedicated to the sport, the interest in Arkansas high school football is greater than ever before. The staff at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium now considers the two December weekends when the six championship games are played — three games are played one weekend and three games are played the next weekend — to be the stadium’s signature events along with the two University of Arkanas home games that are played in Little Rock each fall.

The high school football season often is referred to as the Road to the Rock as teams attempt to make it into those championship games.

“Hosting the state championship football games is a great privilege for us and a highlight of our schedule of events,” says Little Rock attorney Kevin Crass, the chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission. “Every team in the state begins the season with the goal of getting to the Rock. It’s fun to watch as champions are crowned and memories are made.”

When it comes to the most powerful high school programs, there has been a distinct shift in the center of gravity from the Little Rock area to northwest Arkansas.

Robert Yates began working part time at the Arkansas Democrat in 1983. He became a full-time employee of the newspaper in 1985 and has continued to work as the lead high school football writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Yates has had a front-row seat for three decades to watch that geographic shift.

“Because of explosive growth in northwest Arkansas, the teams at Bentonville, Fayetteville and Springdale Har-Ber are now what Little Rock Central, Little Rock Parkview and Little Rock Hall were in, say, 1980,” he says. “Bentonville, for example, was the smallest school in the state’s largest classification in the late 1980s and early 1990s with 751 students in the 1991-93 cycle used by the Arkansas Activities Association. Bentonville was so small compared to the other schools in the largest classification that it played as an independent in 1989 and 1990 rather than compete in the then-4A-West. Now, Bentonville will be the state’s largest school for the third consecutive cycle in 2014-16 with 2,877 students based on the Arkansas Activities Association figures that are used to classify the state’s 16 largest schools.”

Yates says high schools in northwest Arkansas have taken full advantage of the region’s growth.

“The Class 7A-West, in particular, is like a high school version of the Southeastern Conference with schools that are building the best facilities while having the largest coaching staffs and the biggest rosters,” he says. “Northwest Arkansas schools were also ahead of the competition in their style of play with wide-open schemes on offense and progressive thinking.”

The northwest Arkansas high schools further outpaced the competition with the facilities they built, the coaches they hired and the things they did during the offseason.

Yates gives a few examples: “In 2001, Springdale became the first school in the state to play on artificial turf at an on-campus venue. Team camps are the rage across Arkansas during the summer these days, but a handful of schools in northwest Arkansas were traveling to Tulsa for team camps by 2000 and facing national powers such as Tulsa Union and Jenks, Okla.

“Greenwood wanted a topnotch football program when it hired Rick Jones in January 2004. He doesn’t teach any classes, but the school has certainly gotten what it paid for. He has a 107-16 record going into this season, seven conference championships, six state championships and a 38-game winning streak entering the 2013 season.

“Barry Lunney has a similar setup at Bentonville, which has won two state championships since 2008 and had won 35 consecutive regular-season games when this season began.”

Yates points out that Bentonville had the worst facilities in Class 7A-West before Lunney arrived in 2005. Then, the school built its athletic complex, and everything changed.

“It looks like something on a college campus,” Yates says. “What will be interesting to follow in the coming years is how well smaller public schools in northwest Arkansas compete on a statewide level. Programs like Farmington, Gravette, Prairie Grove and Pea Ridge in Class 4A have made noise in recent seasons and probably will continue to flourish as more families move to northwest Arkansas. Those schools also are positioned to scoop up players who transfer for one reason or another from schools in Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale.”

Pea Ridge moved into the 45,166-square-foot Blackhawk Multi-Purpose Facility in the fall of 2011 and is playing in a new stadium this fall. The indoor facility at Pea Ridge includes a 65-yard field, a 6,600-square-foot weight room, three locker rooms, a training room, a video room and offices for the coaches. The new Blackhawk Stadium features an artificial playing surface.

“Who would have imagined in 1980 that Pea Ridge would have better facilities than Little Rock Central, Little Rock Parkview and Little Rock Hall?” Yates says.

Down in the southwest corner of the state, Jay Bunyard has called 288 consecutive live games on KDQN radio for the De Queen High School Leopards. That streak dates back to the 1987 season. Prior to that, Bunyard called numerous games on a tape-delayed basis. He now owns radio stations across the state. His radio group is airing the games of 12 high school football teams this year.

Like Moore and Yates, Bunyard has watched the game change drastically.

“The major changes I’ve noticed through the years are the style of play, better safety precautions for athletes, longer travel to road games and the fact that football has become a year-round sport,” Bunyard says. “When I first started broadcasting games, I can remember the late Coach Wayne Freppon at De Queen and the late Coach Lonnie Barron at Mena playing 48 minutes of field-position football. They were very conservative when it came to calling plays, waiting for the other team to make a mistake. You might see a 0-0 tie or a final score of 3-0 or 7-0.

“Teams now spread the field and try to get the ball into the hands of their best athletes at wide receiver. De Queen and Mena combined for 57 points last year. It’s not uncommon these days to see a team score 60 or even 70 points in a high school football game.”

As for the safety of the game, Bunyard said it had to change because “athletes are now bigger, stronger and faster. Collisions are more violent. But the helmets, pads and equipment are significantly improved. Major penalties are now called for leading with the helmet and horse-collar tackles. Coaches receive extensive training on hydration and how to spot problems in the extreme Arkansas heat.”

Finally, there’s the travel and the year-round nature of the sport.

“I can’t remember traveling more than 90 minutes for a regular-season game years ago,” Bunyard says. “That was good for the fans, and it was good for the players. It created some great rivalries. Last year, I drove three hours one way for conference games on two occasions. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s certainly something that the Arkansas Activities Association should study.

“Football is no longer just a fall sport. There’s spring practice along with summer team camps and seven-on-seven games during the summer. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing. It seems to be resulting in better college recruits coming out of Arkansas. But it does require more of a commitment from the players and their parents.”

Journalist Nate Olson moved to Arkansas in 1998. He was the sports editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial for more than five years, edited the high school sports magazine Vype in central Arkansas and now edits the weekly publication Sync.

“The talent pool has increased considerably since I arrived in Arkansas,” Olson says. “There were only a handful of Division I players that first season I was here, and the University of Arkansas only recruited a few of them. The state is now among the top 10 in the nation per capita in producing Division I players. I credit spring football and seven-on-seven football for that change.

“The mindset about football has changed in this state. It was almost as if the administrators got together and decided that they wanted the state to be on par with the high school football that was being played in Louisiana and Texas. We still have a long way to go to reach that level, but Arkansas has made a name for itself with more high-profile recruits and nationally ranked programs. Administrators have invested in new facilities and paid the top coaches well. Those investments have paid off.”

Down in De Queen, Bunyard says the one thing that hasn’t changed about high school football is the passion of the fans. It’s just that there are now more of those fans.

“Surveys show that more than 250,000 Arkansans will attend high school football games on Friday nights this fall,” he says. “Rivalries that date back more than 100 years are now more intense than ever. There’s still nothing better than high school football.”

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College football: Week 3

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

A 31-21 victory.

You know what one former Razorback head football coach would say: “All wins are precious.”

Or to quote another former Razorback coach: “Smile!”

Yes, I know. It was Samford, not Stanford.

No one ever said things would come easily in 2013.

There were some highlights:

— Two 100-yard rushers in each of the first two games for the first time in school history.

— Alex Collins becoming the first Arkansas freshman to top 100 rushing yards in his first two games while also inventing the War Memorial Leap (take that, Lambeau Leap).

— The longest field goal by a Razorback kicker since 1988. Zach Hocker put it through from 53 yards, the longest since Kendall Trainor’s 58-yard field goal against Miami a quarter of a century ago.

— 333 rushing yards as the Razorbacks topped the 300-yard mark for the first time since 2010.

The Hogs are now 149-54-2 at War Memorial Stadium. Not bad for road games, huh?

There was a Liberty Bowl representative at the game. If Arkansas can get to 6-6, that representative said he would promise an invitation to the bowl game and a high of at least 27 degrees on New Year’s Eve in Memphis.

We were 7-2 on the picks last week and now stand at 10-2 on the year. Two of the Great American Conference teams — Southern Arkansas University and Harding University — let us down on Thursday night of last week. Both squads had been picked to finish near the top of the GAC rankings as they came off outstanding 2012 seasons. Harding was 9-2 last year, and SAU was 8-3. But Harding fell to Southwestern Oklahoma, 27-23, and Southern Arkansas fell to Southeastern Oklahoma, 56-50. We had predicted that both of the Arkansas schools would go on the road and win close games. Instead, they lost close games.

On to the picks for Week 3:

Arkansas 39, Southern Mississippi 19 — Southern Miss has a 3-1 record in games played in the state of Arkansas. All of those games, however, were against Arkansas State. Nebraska coasted to a 56-13 win over USM last week. The Golden Eagles have the longest losing streak in the country at 14. It goes to 15 on Saturday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in what should turn out to be an easier victory than the one against Samford.

Arkansas State 27, Troy 24 — ESPNU telecasts its Thursday night game of the week from Jonesboro this evening, and it should be a good one. ASU rolled over UAPB in its season opener, but nothing went right a week later on the Plains as the Red Wolves lost to former head coach Gus Malzahn and his Auburn Tigers, 38-9. You know it’s going to be a bad day when you’re penalized on the first play for wearing the wrong-colored jersey. That anthracite is nothing but trouble, right Hog fans? ASU had just 150 rushing yards against Auburn as Malzahn went to 2-0 as a head coach in the Southeastern Conference. This is Troy’s first road trip of the season. The Trojans downed UAB by a score of 34-31 in Week 1 and cruised past a weak Savannah State team a week later, 66-3. This should be an interesting game as one of these teams takes the early Sun Belt Conference lead. We’ll give the Red Wolves a slight — very slight — advantage because they’re home.

UCA 31, Tennessee-Martin 30 — UCA, playing before the third-largest crowd ever to see a Bear team in action, led Colorado going into the fourth quarter last Saturday. But the Buffaloes scored the final 21 points to win, 38-24. Bear quarterback Wynrick Smothers was 33 of 55 passing for 280 yards but threw three interceptions for the first time in his college career. This is Martin’s first home game. The Skyhawks won at Chattanooga on Aug. 29 and then lost last Saturday at Boise State, 63-14. UCA leads the all-time series 7-4, but Martin has improved in recent years. Since 2006 under head coach Jason Simpson, the Skyhawks have gone 46-35 and posted three seasons of at least eight victories. They have a 35-20 record against Ohio Valley Conference opponents. This won’t be an easy game for UCA.

Alabama State 17, UAPB 14 — UAPB, the defending SWAC champion, has looked awful in blowout road losses at Arkansas State and McNeese State to start the season. It could be worse. Grambling head coach Doug Williams was fired after just two games. In the preseason, Alabama State and UAPB were selected as the favorites to win their divisions in the SWAC. Alabama State also enters Saturday’s game in Pine Bluff with an 0-2 record after losses to Jack Crowe’s Jacksonville State squad, 24-22, and to Jackson State, 30-23. The margins have been much closer for Alabama State, though. The visitors must be considered the favorite coming into the game. UAPB defeated Alabama State last year, 24-21, in a Thursday night affair on ESPNU.

Southeastern Oklahoma 47, UAM 34 — The Boll Weevils lost for the 11th consecutive time last week, falling 46-22 to East Central Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Southeastern Oklahoma was upsetting Southern Arkansas in that wild 56-50 game at Durant. The Boll Weevils are home in Monticello, but it’s going to be difficult to outscore Southeastern Oklahoma. Expect lots of offense and very little defense.

Southwestern Oklahoma 40, Arkansas Tech 28 — It’s hard to remember when anyone other than Steve Mullins was the head coach at Arkansas Tech. Mullins was the top Wonder Boy for 16 seasons before deciding at the end of last year to concentrate on his duties as athletic director. The Raymond Monica era at Tech began with a 38-10 win over Northwestern Oklahoma, which is among the weaker teams in the GAC. It becomes much more difficult in Russellville on Saturday when Southwestern Oklahoma comes to town, fresh off its upset victory over Harding.

Harding 48, Northwestern Oklahoma 27 — The Bisons lost most of the defensive starters off last year’s 9-2 team that advanced to the NCAA Division II playoffs. That loss of defensive talent showed in last week’s defeat at the hands of Southwestern Oklahoma. On Saturday night in Searcy, the Bisons host a struggling Northwestern Oklahoma program. A win should provide a confidence boost for Harding.

Henderson 70, McKendree 23 — The Reddies moved into the Division II Top 10 after opening the season with an 82-10 victory over Southern Nazarene. This week, the Reddies are back in Arkadelphia for a nonconference game against McKendree from Illinois, which was 3-7 last year. Henderson went on the road and picked up a 47-24 win at McKendree in 2012. The margin should be even more lopsided this time. Against Southern Nazarene, Reddie quarterback Kevin Rodgers had 468 passing yards and ran his record to 15-2 as Henderson’s starting quarterback. Henderson has now won 13 consecutive regular-season games.

Ouachita 40, Southern Nazarene 12 — Ouachita is the last college team in Arkansas to begin the 2013 season. Ouachita is also the only college program in the state to have posted five consecutive winning seasons. The Tigers, who return 10 starters off last year’s defense, go on the road to take on the Southern Nazarene team that absorbed that whipping from Henderson a week ago. Three of the Tigers’ first four games are in Oklahoma.

Southern Arkansas 31, East Central Oklahoma 29 — This is the game of the week in the GAC. Southern Arkansas is angry after losing at Southeastern Oklahoma, and East Central is feeling good after its win over UAM. These are two of the best five teams in the conference, and it should be a close game Saturday night in Magnolia. We’ll give the Muleriders the advantage in front of the home crowd.

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Rex’s Rankings: One week in the books

Monday, September 9th, 2013

For those of us who are starved for some real high school football — not the seven-on-seven stuff they play in the summer — the first week of the season is always wonderful.

You can attend games on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights. That’s just what I did last week.

What did we learn?

We learned that high school football in Arkansas continues to improve, thanks in part to the aforementioned seven-on-seven activities.

Witness Bentonville’s 24-21 win over Kansas City Rockhurst.

Witness Greenwood’s 49-3 win over Sallisaw, Okla. The Greenwood winning streak now stands at 39 games.

Witness Pulaski Academy’s 37-29 win over Memphis University School.

Witness Springdale Har-Ber’s 42-35 win over a Webb City, Mo., team that came to Washington County on Friday with a 46-game winning streak.

Here are the rankings with one week in the books:

Overall

1. Bentonville

2. Fayetteville

3. North Little Rock

4. Greenwood

5. Springdale Har-Ber

6. Pulaski Academy

7. Camden Fairview

8. Fort Smith Southside

9. Conway

10. Pine Bluff

Class 7A

1. Bentonville

2. Fayetteville

3. North Little Rock

4. Springdale Har-Ber

5. Fort Smith Southside

Class 6A

1. Greenwood

2. Pine Bluff

3. Jonesboro

4. Russellville

5. El Dorado

Class 5A

1. Pulaski Academy

2. Camden Fairview

3. White Hall

4. Watson Chapel

5. Shiloh Christian

Class 4A

1. Arkadelphia

2. Booneville

3. Warren

4. Pine Bluff Dollarway

5. Hamburg

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Harding Academy

3. Barton

4. Mayflower

5. Glen Rose

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. Gurdon

3. Carlisle

4. Bearden

5. Strong

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College football: Week 2

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

It was a hot start to the college football season in Arkansas, wasn’t it?

With temperatures in the 90s when the Razorbacks kicked off in Fayetteville last Saturday afternoon, the first aid crews were kept busy. I understand they treated dozens of people. But it wasn’t for dehydration. They were treating people who were hit in the face after asking the folks sitting next to them the inane question: “Is it hot enough for ya?”

You know, there just wasn’t too much for Arkansas fans to complain about after the first game of the Bret Bielema era.

You had Jonathan Williams rushing for 151 yards and Alex Collins rushing for 131 yards. Arkansas was one of just four teams in the country (Arkansas State was another) during the first weekend of college football with at least two running backs topping the century mark.

You had Brandon Allen completing 15 of his 22 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns.

On defense, the Hogs had four sacks and forced two turnovers. After netting 136 yards on their first two possessions, Louisiana-Lafayette had just 138 yards the rest of the afternoon as Arkansas posted a 34-14 victory.

Louisiana-Lafayette is now 0-37 against Southeastern Conference teams and 0-5 against Arkansas. The margin should be even larger this week as Samford (that’s Samford; not Stanford) from the FCS comes to Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.

Meanwhile, up in Jonesboro last Saturday night, Arkansas State could have named its score against the Golden Lions of UAPB. With at least a dozen players having been ruled academically ineligible, UAPB was just no match for ASU. The final score was 62-11. Fans stayed to watch the UAPB band perform at halftime and then left in droves.

Four Red Wolves gained more than 100 yards on the ground — David Oku had 124, Sirgregory Thornton had 112, Michael Gordon had 102 and quarterback Fredi Knighten out of Pulaski Academy had 101.

Arkansas State finished the night with 672 yards of total offense. Of that yardage, 509 came on the ground. That’s just 17 yards shy of a school record. The Red Wolves had 480 yards by halftime and scored on nine of their first 10 possessions.

I realize this is the fourth head coach at ASU in as many seasons, but it has been amazing to watch the transformation of this program. It obviously would be an upset if the Red Wolves were to beat Auburn on the Plains on Saturday, but these are players who go there expecting to upset their former head coach, Gus Malzahn. It’s also a program that has drawn 30,000 fans in each of the past three home games.

In Conway on Thursday night of last week, UCA had an easy time with Incarnate Word from San Antonio, winning 58-7 before a crowd of more than 10,000. Five Bears were suspended for this game, but it didn’t matter.

Quarterback Wynrick Smothers was 27 of 31 passing for 267 yards and one touchdown. The Bears, who had 523 yards of offense, led 30-0 at halftime. Expect UCA to compete for at least a half if not longer when the Bears go to Colorado this weekend, just as was the case a year ago when they actually led Ole Miss at Oxford at intermission in the season’s first game.

All of the state’s NCAA Division II teams with the exception of Ouachita open the season this week. And the new Division III team from Hendrix is home against Westminster on Saturday afternoon. It’s the school’s first football game since 1960. I’ll be in Conway. It should be fun.

I’ll be honest and tell you that I don’t know much about Division III football. So I won’t be picking Hendrix games this season. Let’s let this new program get off the ground. As in the past, I’ll pick the Arkansas, Arkansas State, UCA, UAPB and Great American Conference games each week.

We were 3-0 on picks last week. On to the picks for Week II:

Arkansas 52, Samford 17 — I hope to start the day Saturday having breakfast with my old friend Andy Westmoreland, the former Ouachita president who is now the president of Samford in Birmingham. I bet Andy’s morning in Little Rock will be better than his evening. Samford, a member of the Southern Conference, started the season last Friday night with a 31-21 win over Georgia State in Atlanta. It was Samford’s first win over an FBS team. Samford, which is Bobby Bowden’s alma mater, has just 63 scholarships while Arkansas can offer 85. That difference in depth will show on a warm night at War Memorial Stadium. Samford is 2-73-3 against SEC teams. The last time the Bulldogs beat an SEC team was in 1934 when Samford defeated Ole Miss. So Westmoreland has now been the president of two schools that have defeated Ole Miss in football. Ouachita beat Ole Miss in 1914. Ouachita is also the only Arkansas school to have defeated the Razorbacks more than once. When it comes to the Razorbacks, Samford will have to settle for the check it takes back to Birmingham.

Auburn 28, Arkansas State 22 — Malzahn is 1-0 as an SEC head coach after Auburn’s 31-24 victory over Washington State. We should have known it would be a game of big plays because it was Malzahn vs. Mike Leach. Neither team is very good. Expect the Red Wolves to hang around until the end Saturday with a chance to win at Jordan-Hare. Red Wolf fans remember this quote from Malzahn a year ago: “If you think I’m here for only one year, you don’t know me very well.”

Colorado 31, UCA 20 — You also can expect UCA to hang around in Boulder on Saturday. UCA will receive a check for $390,000, the largest it has ever received. Games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Kansas State loom during the next four seasons as the Conway school continues to upgrade its football program. Colorado was just 1-11 a year ago. It opened the season with a rare Sunday game, defeating Colorado State, 41-27. The Bears find themselves ranked No. 5 in the FCS coaches’ poll. And we’re coming off a first week in which eight FCS teams defeated FBS squads. UCA head coach Clint Conque would love to become No. 9 in 2013. After watching the Bears last week in Conway, I think his team has a chance.

McNeese State 47, UAPB 16 — One of those FCS teams that went on the road and won last week against a school from the NCAA’s highest division was McNeese State from the Southland Conference. The Cowboys shocked South Florida. McNeese is now filled with confidence, and that’s bad news for the depleted UAPB team that rolls into Lake Charles this weekend. It looks as if the defending SWAC champion is going to start the 2013 season with a record of 0-2.

Southern Arkansas 35, Southeastern Oklahoma 33 — The 2013 Great American Conference season begins with three Arkansas teams on the road tonight in Oklahoma. Since the Southern Arkansas-Southeastern Oklahoma series cranked back up two years ago when the two schools joined the GAC, the road team has won each time. The Muleriders must go to Durant (home of the world’s largest peanut) a second consecutive season. SAU won there last year, 31-24, en route to an 8-3 season. The preseason coaches’ poll had Southern Arkansas second behind Henderson. Southeastern Oklahoma was ranked sixth out of 11 schools.

Harding 29, Southwestern Oklahoma 27 — In another Thursday night game, Harding must make the long trip to Weatherford. Harding was 9-2 a year ago, and Southwestern Oklahoma was 3-7. The Bisons ended the regular season a year ago with a 38-7 win over Southwestern, racking up 358 rushing yards in the process. Harding has won 10 of its past 11 season openers.

Arkansas Tech 40, Northwestern Oklahoma 19 — Coach Raymond Monica brings a new look to Tech following the resignation of Steve Mullins after 16 years as head coach of the Wonder Boys. Monica had success at Kutztown in Pennsylvania, and he gets to open tonight against a Northwestern Oklahoma team that was 3-7 a year ago. Tech, which finished 5-6, beat Northwestern by a score of 41-20 last season. The result should be much the same tonight since the Rangers have 52 redshirt or true freshmen on their team.

East Central Oklahoma 23, UAM 12 — The Boll Weevils must go to Ada for a third consecutive season. East Central, which finished 6-5 a year ago, is ranked fifth in the preseason GAC poll. UAM, which was 1-10 last year, is ranked ninth. East Central beat UAM in Ada by scores of 34-9 in 2011 and 31-17 in 2012. The Tigers should make it three in a row Saturday.

Henderson 59, Southern Nazarene 14 — Henderson is picked first in the conference. Southern Nazarene is picked dead last. That tells you all you need to know about Saturday night’s game in Arkadelphia. The Reddies went 10-0 in the regular season last year — the first undefeated, untied team in school history — before losing in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. This year, it appears Henderson has the talent to go much deeper in the playoffs. The Reddies are ranked No. 13 in the American Football Coaches Association preseason Division II poll and should move up a few slots after Saturday night’s blowout win.

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