As football season approaches it's time to make my predictions for the stout 2-4A Conference. Those who follow me on twitter (Will Gilbert@laketownsports) had the chance to view my prediction last week. Here is a quick synopsis of the reasoning behind my positioning of teams.
With only four playoff spots available and six postseason capable teams, the 2-4A Conference is head and shoulders above the rest of the leagues in Class 4A.
Pine Bluff Dollarway and Newport appear to be the most talented teams with Heber Springs, Lonoke, Stuttgart and Clinton waging a war for the final two playoff slots.
1) Pine Bluff Dollaway: The Cardinals are loaded with talent, boasting a massive offensive line and speed at every skill position. With 7 starters returning on each side of the ball, Dollarway has what it takes to win the conference championship and perhaps even a state title. Senior running back Joshua Liddell (6-2, 190) burned Heber Springs last season with 178 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Cardinals' 54-20 win at Panther Stadium. However, depth could be an issue for Dollarway, which lost to state runner-up Highland 34-24 in the second round of the state playoffs.
2) Newport: Coach Don Harrison, promoted from offensive coordinator, takes over a talented Newport team, which returns 7 starters on each side of the ball. If the Greyhounds can piece together an offensive line to help open holes for sophomore running back Carl Turner (5-9, 185) and dynamic senior Kristen Crite (5-9, 160), Newport certainly has a chance to knock off Dollarway and earn the conference crown. Newport lost at Dollarway 44-42 in overtime last season, but they get them at home this season in a game that could be for all the marbles.
3) Heber Springs: The Panthers, seeking their eighth-straight playoff appearance under mastermind Coach Steve Janski, have the ability to burn opposing defenses with a quick strike passing game led by senior quarterback Michael Kramer (6-0, 205). Although the Panthers lost two dynamic athletes in Clint Ligon and Ethan Bly, they have a lot of new names ready to pick up the slack behind a strong offensive line led by seniors Nate Hills (6-4, 300) and Jason Hammons (6-0, 245). Junior center Zach McCormick (6-2, 230) has gained strength in the off-season and the trio of linemen should be able to open gaping holes for powerful junior running back Chandler Marquardt (5-11, 170). A third place finish in the grueling 2-4A Conference means the Panthers would need to knock off Lonoke at home and defending 4A state champion Stuttgart on the road. Heber lists 6 returning starters on offense and only 3 on defense, which could pose a problem against some of the best athletes in the state.
4) Lonoke: The speedy Jackrabbits are always loaded with talent. With 4 returning starters on offense and 5 on defense, Lonoke could finish anywhere from third to fifth in the league. Senior receiver Blake Mack (6-4, 195) has all the tools to play college football, but the big question will be whether the Jackrabbits posses a quarterback capable of dispersing the ball to their numerous skill players.
Page 2 of 2 - 5) Stuttgart: It's hard to believe defending 4A state champion Stuttgart could come up short of the playoffs this season, especially under the guidance of Coach Billy Elmore, who has posted an overall record of 22-4 in two seasons on the Grand Prairie. However, the Ricebirds lost a ton of talent last season including brut quarterback Dontrell Brown, who was the heart and soul of the team. Stuttgart had a mediocre junior high team last year and could miss the playoffs unless they find a way to open holes for senior running back Tyler Luster (5-8, 230), who rushed for over 600 yards last season. Stuttgart returns 2 starters on offense and 3 on defense. The Ricebirds annual midseason matchup with Heber Springs could go a long way in determining which team qualifies for the state playoffs.
6) Clinton: Boasting an extremely strong junior class, which led the junior high team to an undefeated season in 2011, the Yellow Jackets could be the surprise team in the conference this season with 7 starters returning on offense and 8 on defense. With duel-threat quarterback Fielder Dufrene (5-10, 150) running Clinton's Wing-T offense, the Yellow Jackets should make tremendous strides from last season, when they finished 2-8. However, in the state's toughest conference, that improvement could mean little unless Clinton can find a way to beat rival Heber Springs ¬ a team that has defeated them six consecutive times dating back to the 2006 Hooten.com Kickoff Classic. The two rivals didn't meet in 2007, but renewed the rivalry in 2008 when the Yellow Jackets moved into the 2-4A Conference.
7) Southside Batesville: The Southerners posted their best record (4-5-1) in school history last year and still failed to make the playoffs despite the strong efforts of two premier Batesville High School transfers. The transfers are gone, leaving Southside with 3 returning starters on offense, including three-year starter Drew Moss (6-4, 175) at quarterback. The Southerners list 9 returning starters from a defense that gave up a 26.6 points per game last season. Playing in the toughest conference in the state, it looks to be another long season at Southside.
8) Marianna-Lee: If the Trojans are able to field a team this season, which is still up in the air, they will struggle mightily. Marianna, set to drop down to 3A next season, returns 3 offensive starters and 5 defensive starters from a team that finished 0-9 and only scored one touchdown last fall.
(Will Gilbert is sports editor for The Sun-Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org)