Few leagues were dealt a worse hand when conference realignment shook out than the 4A-7.
When everything was said and done, the conference lost teams like Joe T. Robinson and Bauxite. It gained new faces in Mena and Waldron. It also had had two teams -- Fountain Lake and Genoa Central -- drop to 8-man football, leaving the conference with six teams.
The changes had teams searching for games, left with a fraction of the usual number of home games and abbreviated schedules.
With all that in the past, the six remaining teams -- Arkadelphia, Ashdown, Malvern, Mena, Nashville and Waldron -- have gotten off to blistering starts.
The six have combined for a record of 18-5 and comprise the only conference in the state that does not feature a team with a losing record as conference play begins.
"I don't think it's surprising," Arkadelphia Coach Trey Shucker said. "I think it says a lot about our conference, and the coaches in our conference in how they prepare their kids for Friday nights and their football programs. It just speaks highly of everybody in our conference."
At the top of the pile sits Arkadelphia (3-0) and Ashdown (4-0).
"We'd love to win the conference, that was something that we did not do last year," Shucker said. "In our conference, it's very hard to go undefeated, we know that. But if we win the conference, that would be a huge accomplishment for our program."
The additions of Mena (3-1) and Waldron (2-2) also provide new competition to an already strong group.
"It's an exciting time for everybody in the [4A-7]," Malvern Coach J.D. Plumlee said. "The conference has changed a little bit this year, and it's kind of refreshing to have some new faces and new communities that you're going to."
Add in teams like Malvern (3-1) and Nashville (3-1) -- two teams scoring more than 40 points per game -- and you've got a conference full of contenders.
"There's no mistaking it's still a very tough conference," Plumlee said. "I've been telling my guys, 'We got to get prepped and get ready. ... We still have to buckle down, because it's a tough conference. With the combined record being that way ... anybody can beat anybody on any given night."
"We always know that our conference, week in and week out, is going to be one of the tougher conferences in the state," Nashville Coach Mike Volarich said. "It's been like that for a while. You have to come ready to play every week.
The first two 4A-7 showdowns are scheduled for Friday with Arkadelphia at Nashville and Waldron at Ashdown.
One of the players who could make a difference in swaying the 4A-7 Conference is Nashville's dual-threat quarterback Sloan Perrin.
The senior leads the Scrappers in passing yards (593) and rushing yards (580). He's been the driving force behind an offense scoring 44.5 points per game.
"He's a very dynamic player," Volarich said. "He's one of those guys that's able to score from anywhere on the field anytime he touches the ball."
Perrin is ranks sixth in rushing yards in the state -- the only non-running back in the top 20 -- and is fourth in overall yards.
Having a dual-threat is nothing new for Volarich's Nashville program. The most notable of the former players would be Leonard Snell, who holds the state record for rushing touchdowns in a state title game when he had six in the 2015 Class 4A final.
Volarich said he doesn't necessarily seek out players with dual-threat ability to run his offense, but said he's enjoyed getting to work with what Perrin brings to the table.
"It makes it fun as a play-caller," He said. "It really opens it up as a play-caller when you know that you can count on him to get the ball to the right guy, in the right place in the passing game and to open up the ground game with his legs."
He's even enjoyed a handful of plays that didn't exactly go to plan.
"There's definitely been plays this year where they've had the play stopped in the backfield, [and] he's made something happen out of it. So he's bailed us out of bad coaching calls a lot," Volarich said with a chuckle.
On right track
Mansfield doubled its win total from 2020 to 2021 under Coach Tim Cothran. The only issue is that the total went from one win to two.
Cothran's Tigers (3-0) have already surpassed 2021's mark. He said he's been pleasantly surprised with his team's performance and believes it will be more than a one-win improvement this time around.
"Coming into the season, I felt like we could have a winning season," he said. "To already have three wins in the book, that's huge. To be 3-0 going into conference [play], we're real pleased with that. Our goal is still to be in the playoffs"
The Tigers have allowed 13 total points through wins over Magazine, Paris and Waldron. Their 4.3 points allowed per game ranks third in the state.
Thirteen of Mansfield's 26 players are seniors. Cothran said the experience, as well as a stout defensive line, has made the biggest impact on his teamr.
"The defensive line has really stepped up and has done just a really tremendous thing," He said. "We've got depth, which I knew going into the year we had 13 seniors. I knew going into the year we weren't going to be very deep as far as bodies, but we were going to be deep because everybody can contribute. So that has made a pretty big deal."
With three wins in the past two season, Cothran has high hopes for what Mansfield can achieve in his fourth year at the helm. That all starts with the way his team plays.
"We want to prove ourselves to be highly competitive, to try to get out of that mode of, 'OK, well we're just going to get our butt whipped. Let's just go,' " Cothran said. "We don't want to have that mindset. We want to have that mindset of, 'Hey, we're going to compete, we're going do the best we can.' Let the chips fall where they may, but we want people to know that we're going to give them a game."