The high school football season hasn't officially gotten underway yet, but Arkadelphia Coach Trey Schucker recently expressed how pleased he's been with his team throughout the preseason.
His team gave him an even bigger reason to be optimistic about things after the way they performed earlier this week against Class 6A power Lake Hamilton during an intense scrimmage, one in which he felt his team more than held their own.
But despite all of the positives he's observed since fall workouts began on Aug. 1, the third-year coach isn't expecting to see this same group of Badgers on the field by the time they play their first conference game in late September.
"I think we're going to see a big difference out of this group as the season progresses," Schucker said. "Every team gets better over the course of a season, but you're going to see a lot of our players really come into their own and grow. That's what you want to see as a coach, your guys getting better and better.
"That's what we're anticipating happening for us."
That's not the only thing Schucker hopes will happen for his team in 2022.
A state championship may very well be in the works for Arkadelphia, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's preseason No. 1 team in Class 4A. The Badgers welcome back a number of regulars that aided in making a semifinal run last year and have a flood of players -- some of whom are upperclassmen -- who are expected to fill any holes or gaps they may have on both sides of the ball.
That formula is also why Arkadelphia finds itself at the head of a class that figures to be as deep as ever.
No. 2 Warren, which has been a perennial contender under Coach Bo Hembree, is more of a 1A to the Badgers considering the potential it has on offense and the muscle it's got on defense. No. 3 Stuttgart is loaded for bear in places that not many other teams in the class can match, specifically on both lines, and No. 4 Ashdown may have the state's best player in tight end/wide receiver Shamar Easter.
That's just an inkling of the depth in a division that won't even have the two teams that met for the state title a year ago. Joe T. Robinson, last season's winner, and Shiloh Christian have both moved to Class 5A where they're predicted to challenge for a crown.
"You lose [Robinson, Shiloh Christian], but you gain Harding Academy, who won three state titles in a row in Class 3A, and McGehee, which played for a 3A state title two years ago and made it to the semifinals last year," Hembree explained. "It's going to look a little different, but at the same time, you're gaining some guys who've played a lot of football games. The class lost two that were really good, but we also gained two that were really good in their class.
"So it's going to be tough top to bottom, especially in our own conference."
Hembree believes his Lumberjacks will have to battle tooth and nail against the likes of McGehee and Star City, which he says may have one of the better teams they've had in a while, just to win the 4A-8. But Warren has been the measuring stick for that league for years, and it'll have a better than good chance to win its ninth conference championship since 2012, not to mention a real possibility at capturing state title No. 5.
The Lumberjacks have a wealth of experience defensively, from lineman Landon Wolfe to linebacker Maddox Lassiter, who'll also start at quarterback. Offensively, running back Trey Jackson and wide receiver Tayshawn Johnson are in line for big seasons as well. Hembree, however, did note that a lot of the guys he'll count on are young.
The same can be said for Stuttgart, but the Ricebirds are ripe with top-tier players. Running back Cedric Hawkins is coming off an 1,100-yard season on the ground and defensive end Kameron Harper had 61 tackles, including 14 for losses, as a junior. But Stuttgart's biggest asset is the return of all five of its offensive linemen.
"And they're all seniors," Stuttgart Coach Josh Price said. "Aydan Robnett, Hunter Smith, Ryan Kizzire, Matthew Hoskyn, and James Noble. ... all are returners, and they all do good things. We've got really good skill kids, but those [linemen] are extremely pivotal for us.
"They're extremely smart, and they do a good job of getting a hat on a hat and staying on blocks. We're excited about those guys because that's a huge bonus."
There may not be a bigger bonus in all of Class 4A than who Arkadelphia will have under center.
Senior quarterback Donovan Whitten completed 65 percent (211 of 326) of his passes for more than 3,600 yards and 43 touchdowns while rushing for 682 yards on 115 carries and 6 more scores last season. He's gotten interest from several NCAA Division I schools and has received offers from a number of Division II programs, including Ouachita Baptist and Arkansas Tech.
The Badgers also have speed at wideout with Latonnieo Hughes and Tripp Campbell, both of whom caught five touchdown passes apiece last year. Evan Bailey and Carter Babb, Schucker said, will also factor in tremendously and give Whitten even more options on the outside.
Arkadelphia will have to account for the loss of graduated all-state running back Jaishon Davis, who's now at Henderson State after running for 1,548 yards and 32 touchdowns during his senior season, but Schucker feels he'll have others step up when called upon to boost their rushing attack.
"I think we've got a chance to be really good," he said. "Class 4A is really competitive. I know we lost Joe T. and Shiloh, but it's still really good. It's one of those classifications where anything can happen, especially late in the playoffs. You always see a darkhorse that creeps up and surprises some people.
"But the top teams, like Warren, Stuttgart, Malvern, Ashdown, all are really, really good. We know it's going to be a dogfight every Friday night for us, and we've got to be ready to step up."
Class 4A Super Six
6. Harding Academy
Class 4A Super Six – Erick Taylor
No. 1 Arkadelphia
COACH Trey Schucker
2021 RECORD 10-4
KEY RETURNERS QB Donovan Whitten (Sr., 6-3, 220), WR Latonnieo Hughes (Sr., 5-10, 150), WR Tripp Campbell (Sr., 6-3, 195), DL Max Wilson (Sr., 6-2, 245)
NOTEWORTHY Arkadelphia has won at least eight games in six of the last seven years. … Schucker is entering his third season as coach after spending the previous five seasons as an assistant at Searcy. … The Badgers gave up an average of 52 points in its four losses, including 57 in the semifinals in a three-point setback to Shiloh Christian. … Whitten was also an all-4A-7 pick for the Badgers’ baseball team.
Aug. 26;at Camden Fairview
Sept. 2;Hot Springs
Sept. 23;at Nashville*
Oct. 21;at Ashdown*
Nov. 4;at Malvern*
*4A-7 Conference game
No. 2 Warren
COACH Bo Hembree
2021 RECORD 11-2
KEY RETURNERS QB Maddox Lassiter (Sr., 6-4, 230), RB Trey Jackson (Jr., 5-10, 180), DL Landon Wolfe (Sr., 6-3, 215), WR Tayshawn Johnson (Sr., 6-0, 180)
NOTEWORTHY Hembree, who has an 80% winning percentage at the helm, has led the Lumberjacks to four state championships and is going into his 23rd season as head coach. … Warren lost its first and last games last year but won all 11 games in between that stretch. … Three of the team’s first four games are on the road, starting with the opener at No. 3 Stuttgart. … The Lumberjacks advanced to the semifinals in 2020 and 2021.
Aug. 26;at Stuttgart
Sept. 2;White Hall
Sept. 16;at Star City*
Sept. 23;at McGehee*
Oct. 7;at Dumas*
Oct. 21;at Monticello*
Oct. 28;Helena-West Helena*
*4A-8 Conference game
No. 3 Stuttgart
COACH Josh Price
2021 RECORD 11-2
KEY RETURNERS RB Cedric Hawkins (Sr., 5-8, 170), WR Kendrick Hawkins (Sr., 5-10, 175), DL Kameron Harper (Sr., 6-3, 195), QB Landon Melnychuk (Jr., 5-11, 175)
NOTEWORTHY The Ricebirds scored 42 points or more in six of their seven conference games in 2021. … Stuttgart won nine consecutive contests before losing in the quarterfinals to No. 2 Warren, which handed the Ricebirds both of their losses last season. … Price is going into his seventh season as head coach at Stuttgart. … The Ricebirds will play back-to-back games against teams from the 4A-8 Conference (Warren, Star City) to open the season.
Sept. 2;at Star City
Sept. 16;at Forrest City
Sept. 23;at Harding Academy*
Oct. 14;Cave City*
Oct. 21;at Heber Springs*
Oct. 28;at Lonoke*
Nov. 4;Bald Knob*
*4A-2 Conference game
No. 4 Ashdown
COACH Matt Richardson
2021 RECORD 9-3
KEY RETURNERS RB Jay’den Fricks (Sr., 5-9, 190), WR Shamar Easter (Sr., 6-6, 225), LB Nash Brown (Jr., 5-11, 180), WR Kaiden Winfrey (Sr., 6-2, 170)
NOTEWORTHY After winning a total of five games from 2018-19, Ashdown has racked up 16 victories combined over the last two seasons. … Fricks had more than 1,000 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns on the ground a year ago. … The Panthers have a pivotal three-game stretch in October when they play Malvern, Nashville and Arkadelphia in succession. … Ashdown opened up 7-0 last year before losing two straight games to Arkadelphia and Joe T. Robinson.
Sept. 2;at De Queen
Sept. 9;at Hope
Oct. 7;at Malvern*
Oct. 28;at Mena*
*4A-7 Conference game
No. 5 Malvern
COACH J.D. Plumlee
2021 RECORD 6-6
KEY RETURNERS QB Cedric Simmons (Sr., 6-0, 185), RB Jalen Dupree (Jr., 6-1, 195), OL Vinnie Winters (Jr., 6-5, 300), WR/DB Dyelon Carradine (Jr., 6-1, 170)
NOTEWORTHY Malvern hasn’t won a state championship since 1993. … Winters, who also plays some on the defensive line, has offers from the University of Arkansas, Arkansas State University and Memphis. … Simmons will be a four-year starter for the Leopards. He had his junior season cut short after suffering a knee injury just before conference play began. … Plumlee has 17 starters returning, many of whom are underclassmen.
Aug. 26;at Riverview
Sept. 2;at Glen Rose
Sept. 9;Hot Springs Lakeside
Sept. 23;at Hernando, Miss.
Sept. 30;at Waldron*
Oct. 14;at Mena*
Oct. 28;at Nashville*
*4A-7 Conference game
No. 6 Harding Academy
COACH Neil Evans
2021 RECORD 13-2
KEY RETURNERS QB Kade Smith (Sr., 5-11, 195), WR Kyler Hoover (Jr., 5-8, 145), DL Levi Mercer (Sr., 6-4, 225), LB Peyton Cole (Sr., 5-10, 190)
NOTEWORTHY The Wildcats will have to replace graduated running back Andrew Miller, who ran for 1,715 yards last season. … Smith, who has already committed to the University of Arkansas to play baseball for Dave Van Horn, threw for almost 2,800 yards as a junior. … Harding Academy will play its first three games of the season away from Searcy. … Kicker Kyle Ferrie is committed to play next season at Mississippi State.
Aug. 26;at Valley View
Sept. 2;at Camden Harmony Grove
Sept. 16;at Booneville
Sept. 30;at Lonoke*
Oct. 7;Bald Knob*
Oct. 28;at Heber Springs*
Nov. 4;at Cave City*
*4A-2 Conference game
2021 CLASS 4A POSTSEASON RESULTS
Malvern 28, DeWitt 20
Shiloh Christian 48, Cave City 7
Ashdown 35, Lonoke 14
Ozark 48, Huntsville 18
Crossett 49, Pottsville 7
Southside Batesville 28, Star City 24
Arkadelphia 56, Clinton 26
Trumann 27, Mena 14
Stuttgart 42, Monticello 7
Elkins 29, Dardanelle 23
Joe T. Robinson 35, Mills 8
Pocahontas 47, Fountain Lake 28
Prairie Grove 28, Jonesboro Westside 10
Lamar 21, Gentry 20
NOTE Rivercrest and Warren received byes
Rivercrest 28, Malvern 21
Shiloh Christian 21, Ashdown 0
Crossett 44, Ozark 20
Arkadelphia 51, Southside Batesville 20
Warren 35, Trumann 7
Stuttgart 63, Elkins 34
Joe T. Robinson 49, Pocahontas 7
Lamar 24, Prairie Grove 23
Shiloh Christian 41, Rivercrest 7
Arkadelphia 49, Crossett 21
Warren 36, Stuttgart 29
Joe T. Robinson 49, Lamar 14
Shiloh Christian 57, Arkadelphia 54
Joe T. Robinson 43, Warren 13
Joe T. Robinson 42, Shiloh Christian 14
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
Warren at Stuttgart (Aug. 26)
This game doesn’t exactly need an explanation as to why it’s huge. These two have been playing each other for years, with Warren taking eight of the past nine meetings. The Lumberjacks were actually the only team to beat Stuttgart last year – twice. The Ricebirds will be looking for a little payback in this No. 2 vs. No. 3 showdown in Arkansas County.
Stuttgart at Harding Academy (Sept. 23)
The big names just keep coming for Stuttgart. In this one, though, the Ricebirds will get the opportunity to officially welcome Harding Academy to Class 4A. The Wildcats won the prior Class 3A state titles but have made the move up. This game will be their 4A-2 Conference opener as well. So don’t expect there to be any kind of feeling out period. It’ll be fireworks as soon as the ball is kicked off.
Rivercrest at Pocahontas (Sept. 23)
These two are pegged to be atop of 4A-3 Conference standings from the start, and they’ll play each other fairly early. In fact, it’ll be the first league game for both, which means the loser can’t afford any more slip-ups the rest of the way if they have plans to win a conference title. There will be other groups, like Jonesboro Westside, that’ll offer tests, but this battle is crucial.
Ashdown at Malvern (Oct. 7)
There will be very little room for error for either Ashdown or Malvern in the top-heavy 4A-7. That in itself makes the game on this night extra important. Both will have to play No. 1 Arkadelphia later in the year, not to mention games against always tough Nashville. But a bunch of talent will be on display at David Alpe Field on this night, with Ashdown’s Shamar Easter and Malvern’s Jalen Dupree and Cedric Simmons.
Arkadelphia at Malvern (Nov. 4)
The home team will play the preseason favorite in front of their fans in what could be for the conference championship. There’s a lot that could unfold before then (see the note right above this one), but there’s no denying that these two will be amped. Arkadelphia is 6-1 in its last seven games against Malvern. In those six wins, the Badgers have scored at least 49 points.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shamar Easter, Ashdown, WR, Sr.
Easter has the size of a tight end and the speed of a wide receiver. That makes for a dangerous combination for opposing defenses to deal with.
The 6-6, three-sport standout has already committed to the University of Arkansas after getting offers from a number of schools, including Arizona State, Florida State and Texas A&M.
He caught 34 passes for 544 yards and 5 touchdowns last year, but those tallies should increase this season.
Connor Baker, Pocahontas, QB/LB, Sr.
The senior has been an all-state choice the past two years, but he’s been all-everything for the Redskins.
Baker rushed for 2,211 yards and scored 42 touchdowns a year ago to help Pocahontas gain a piece of a conference championship. He also threw for more than 600 yards.
If those stats weren’t impressive enough, he had 110 tackles on defense.
Parker Brown, Heber Springs, RB, Jr.
Teams may have a hard time keeping up with Brown this year.
Heber Springs Coach Todd Wood will have this star junior lined up all over the place – in the backfield, on the perimeter, in the slot – because he’s that dangerous when he has the ball.
He rushed for more than 800 yards and had almost 400 yards receiving last year for a Panthers’ team that was extremely young.
C.J. Turner, Star City, RB/LB, Sr.
One of the state’s top players will again be at the forefront for a very good Star City ballclub.
Turner, a 6-2, 205-pound senior, contemplated offers from teams like Arkansas State, Memphis and Tulane before eventually committing to Colorado. His skillset at linebacker should suit the Buffaloes well.
However, he’s shown he’s a very good running back as well.
Camron Lytle, Little Rock Hall, RB, Sr.
Not even a broken wrist will keep this guy from being electric on Friday nights.
The multi-faceted athlete was dominant in eight-man football last season when he went over the 1,000-yard mark. He also flourished defensively for the Warriors, who are moving back up to 11-man football this year.
Expect Lytle to have a breakout senior season while accumulating more and more interest from colleges.