Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

SPORTS>> Taking away fond memories, leaving behind best wishes

By Kelly Fenton


News of every sort is breaking out across the sports world.

There is old news (Michael Vick has been reinstated in the NFL); shocking news (some Asian farmer named Y.E. Yang beat Tiger Woods on a Sunday at a major); boring news (some guy up at Fayetteville just moved up the charts at outside linebacker); and recurring news (Brett Favre has retir … er, I mean, unretired again).

But with all those headlines swirling around, the thing that matters most to folks in these parts is not what HAS happened, but what is about to happen. High school football season starts in less than two weeks – in just 10 days, in fact.

I, unfortunately, lost a bet and will be beginning my life as a New Jerseyan (I’ll be trying to remember that it’s no longer “y’all,” but rather “you’s guys”) just about the time Cabot and Jacksonville officially kick off the 2009 prep season on Sept. 1.

Though I’ll be 1,200 miles away, The Leader sports pages will remain in outstanding hands as 18-year Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriting veteran Todd Traub will be sliding into my old seat right across from the very capable Jason King. King, by the way, will once again be making his predictions every Wednesday, either breaking your hearts by unduly raising expectations for your team’s prospects or risking his own life and limb by being brutally frank about those prospects.

Though I am leaving and won’t see a down played, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer my own thoughts and assessments about each of the nine teams in The Leader coverage area. I hope neither to offend any of you’s guys … um, y’all … nor to paint a brighter picture than is warranted for your team’s chances this season.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is, we seem to have limited prospects for a state champion coming out of northern Pulaski County, Lonoke County or White County.

If I were hastily assigning up arrows and down arrows for area teams, which I am, it would go something like this: Up arrows only for Cabot, Riverview and Harding Academy; down arrows for Searcy and North Pulaski (but not STRAIGHT down; new coaches give these teams new life, though both will take time to turn around); side arrows for everyone else.

Cabot would seem to have the only realistic hopes of a state title this year, and those seem hampered by the fact that, despite the return of an outstanding backfield led by Michael James, the Panthers lost almost their entire front seven.

Harding Academy probably lacks the depth of talent to go very far into postseason, but with all of its tradition and an outstanding junior quarterback in Seth Keese, who already has almost one-and-a-half-years of experience as a starter, another nine- or 10-win season looks promising. For that to happen, though, Roddy Mote must find replacements on the front line to complement all-stater Montgomery Fisher.

Riverview is a great story after springing onto the varsity high school scene last fall to post five wins and reach the playoffs. Back is offensive fireplug Grafton Harrell at quarterback, along with a stable of able running backs and receivers. The line should be solid, especially on the defensive side. Outside of a sophomore jinx, playoffs again look like a strong possibility.

Jacksonville, Sylvan Hills, Lonoke and Beebe all carry similar question marks into the new season, and an injury here or a player stepping up there could tilt the fortunes of any one of them.

The Red Devils over on Linda Lane are a curious case. Only two starters return on offense, but one of those is a strong-armed, seasoned junior quarterback in Logan Perry, who knows the offense inside and out. Head coach Mark Whatley needs to find players to plug in, but the defense may be good enough to give the offense time to become proficient. There seems to be a quiet confidence growing over at Jacksonville.

Almost the exact same situation exists up the road at Beebe. Fullback Sammy Williams — he of the 42 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards rushing the past two seasons — is gone, along with most of the rest of the offense. The defense will have to carry the Badgers until the offense catches up.

Lonoke must cope with the loss of two game-breaking receivers in Michael Howard and Clarence Harris, and will be calling on a quarterback with almost no experience. The tradition is there, but how far will it take them?

Jim Withrow over at Sylvan Hills has had to alter his offense and lower his expectations a little after the loss of a slew of players to academics and other sports. But Jordan Spears and Juliean Broner remain the lynch pins of an able offense and the defense returns veterans in the front seven.

For North Pulaski, it can’t get much worse than it did last year, or the past six years for that matter. A mere five wins over that period practically screamed out for a change, even if head coach Tony Bohannon wasn’t the culprit for the dismal run.
In long-time Jacksonville defensive coordinator Rick Russell, the Falcons may have landed just what they need. He knows his Xs and Os, he’s a big proponent of the weight room and he possesses the emotional fire needed to get things headed in the right direction.

Likewise, Searcy will surely get a boost from a new coach and a new era. Tim Harper was a proven winner at Des Arc. He won’t win many this year, but for the first time in several seasons, fans can reasonably look to a brighter future.
Here’s hoping all my accolades prove prescient and all my reservations prove unfounded.

And here’s saying so long to a great sports community that I will sorely miss.