Friday night's regular-season finale between Stuttgart and Central Arkansas Christian carries plenty of meaning.
The Ricebirds and Mustangs meet at Mustang Mountain in North Little Rock with the winner earning the 4A-2 Conference championship and No. 1 seed in the Class 4A playoffs. The loser will be the league's No. 2 seed.
Stuttgart was winless last season in 10 games, but earned a forfeit victory from Mills. A year later, the Ricebirds (8-0, 6-0 4A-2) are one victory away from their second outright conference title in three seasons.
"It's huge for this program and for the kids," Stuttgart Coach Josh Price said. "But I told them, we're not just here to win conference championships. We want to get to War Memorial [Stadium] in December. We want to play for a state championship. That's what we want to do."
CAC (8-1) lost its first game of the season Friday at Bald Knob, falling 35-14. Junior running back Tyler Williams led the Mustangs with 2 rushing touchdowns and had 70 yards on 22 carries.
Mustangs Coach Tommy Shoemaker hopes his team will be ready for Stuttgart on Friday at home.
"It's a big game," Shoemaker said. "This game is going to be for the conference championship. There's a lot at stake. We know we're playing a good football team."
The Ricebirds' top performers have represented a youth movement.
Junior quarterback Pate Kleinbeck has completed 59 of 99 passes for 1,285 yards and 19 touchdowns this season for the Ricebirds. Arlie Lee, a junior, leads the team with 31 receptions for 657 yards and 12 touchdowns. Sophomore Jaidan Strange is second among the team's receivers with seven touchdowns.
"Pate has managed the game well. He's our bus driver. He takes us where we need to go," Price said. "Jaidan can overtake a game. Arlie is consistent and has sure hands."
Defensively, Stuttgart is allowing 5.8 points per game. Sophomore defensive lineman Kameron Harper has a team-high 10 sacks, while junior defensive lineman Deontre Starks is at seven.
In last week's 53-14 victory over Lonoke, sophomore Cedric Hawkins rushed for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns on 24 carries.
Shoemaker has been impressed with Stuttgart this season.
"They're a complete team," he said. "They're very talented. They're by far the best team we've faced this season. We'll have to play our best to beat them."
CAC has received solid production from one of the best running backs in the state in Williams, and a pair of seniors at quarterback and wide receiver.
Williams has rushed for 1,184 yards and 21 touchdowns on 209 carries. Senior quarterback Palmer Gilbrech is 147-of-228 passing for 1,923 yards with 10 touchdowns and 1 interception. Wide receiver Jackson Richmond, a senior, leads the Mustangs with 53 receptions for 908 yards and 5 touchdowns.
"They've got a three-year starter at quarterback," Price said. "They've got a good running back. They're just a well-coached football team."
Shoemaker said he's glad the Mustangs will get the Ricebirds at Mustang Mountain.
"We're thrilled," Shoemaker said. "I'm excited for our seniors to finish up at home. It's going to be a great game and a big-game atmosphere. Whatever happens will happen."
At a glance
STUTTGART AT CAC
WHEN 7 p.m. Friday
WHERE Mustang Mountain, North Little Rock
RECORDS Stuttgart 8-0, 6-0 4A-2; Central Arkansas Christian 8-1, 5-1
RANKINGS Stuttgart No. 5 in Class 4A; Central Arkansas Christian not ranked
COACHES Stuttgart: Josh Price; Central Arkansas Christian: Tommy Shoemaker