In a year where covid-19 has affected all high school football programs in the state, Joe T. Robinson Coach Todd Eskola is glad he’s got an experienced team back.
Robinson defeated Shiloh Christian in last year’s Class 4A state championship for its first title since 1980.
The Senators return 14 starters and enter this season as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s preseason No. 1 team in Class 4A.
“It’s huge,” Eskola said. “I can’t imagine starting over with a new system this year. It will take several games for them to get their system down.
“The experience we’ve got back is big.”
Robinson gets started with the 2020 season on the first night as it’s part of a three-game slate Thursday night, visiting defending Class 5A state champion Pulaski Academy. The other two games are Fort Smith Southside-Fort Smith Northside and Jonesboro-Little Rock Catholic.
Seniors Buddy Gaston and Hunter Smith lead the Senators, who went 14-1 last season with their only loss coming to Arkadelphia.
Gaston passed for 2,980 yards and 44 touchdowns last season. He threw six touchdown passes in Robinson’s state title game victory.
Smith rushed for 1,922 yards and 19 scores a year ago. He had eight 100-yard games and rushed for at least 200 yards four times, including a 213-yard performance against Shiloh Christian in the state title game.
The production of Gaston and Smith, along with a solid offensive line led by junior E’Marion Harris, excites Eskola going into the season.
“By midseason, I feel like we’ll be better on offense than we were last year,” Eskola said.
Several teams look to challenge Robinson for the top spot in Class 4A in 2020.
Ozark won the 4A-4 Conference last season and advanced to the Class 4A semifinals, but lost at Robinson.
The Hillbillies return 14 starters, including senior quarterback Harper Faulkenberry and senior linebacker Keystan Durning.
Faulkenberry threw 19 touchdown passes a year ago before injuring his leg in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs.
Durning led Ozark with 150 tackles.
Ozark was able to win 12 games last season despite having five seniors suffer injury.
“It allowed us to play a lot of different guys throughout the season,” Ozark Coach Jeremie Burns said. “It allowed us to get some experience for this season.”
Shiloh Christian advanced to its first state title game since 2010 last season.
However, for Shiloh Christian Coach Jeff Conaway, that’s not enough for the Saints.
“It’s always special to get back to that game,” Conaway said. “Getting back to Little Rock is extremely special. But we feel like we still have some unfinished business.”
Senior running back Cam Wiedemann leads the Saints’ returners. Wiedemann rushed for 1,298 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2019.
Conaway said while the Saints lost 24 seniors, he’s confident in the team he has coming back.
“Some juniors and sophomores last year played a lot of second halves,” Conaway said. “They’ve got some good experience.”
Nashville hopes to reach its first state championship game since 2015 and has 15 starters coming back.
Senior running back Keyshawn Stewart rushed for 1,015 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019 to lead the Scrappers.
The Scrappers shared the 4A-7 Conference title with Robinson and Arkadelphia a year ago. They’ve advanced to the Class 4A quarterfinals the past two seasons.
Crossett won the 4A-8 Conference championship last season, snapping Warren’s seven-year run.
The Eagles return junior wide receiver Dewayne Ashford, who caught 11 touchdown passes in 2019. Ashford and the Eagles knocked off two-time defending Class 4A state champion Arkadelphia in the quarterfinals.
New coach Shawn Jackson said the Eagles, despite covid-19 not allowing him to see his players in person until June 1, are focused on being one of the state’s top teams in 2020.
“The kids have been working hard,” Jackson said. “I can’t ask for more from these kids. They love football.”
Four of the past five Class 4A state championships have been won by teams from the 4A-7 Conference.
Nashville won the 2015 title, while Arkadelphia earned back-to-back crowns in 2017 and 2018. Then, Robinson won last year’s title.
Warren (4A-8) is the only team outside the 4A-7 to win a state title since 2015, winning in 2016.
As with previous seasons, Class 4A has proved to be one of the state’s most competitive classifications, so it’s anybody’s guess as to who will play in the state championship game.
“It’s going to be great,” Eskola said. “Nashville is a senior-heavy team and they’ve played a lot of football games. Arkadelphia is a tough out. Warren, Bo [Hembree] has a good group. Ozark has some big kids.”
Jackson has been coaching out of state over the past several years, but the Missouri native kept up with Arkansas high school football regardless. He said the opportunity to coach a Class 4A team was a big one for him because of the competition.
“You can’t be in a tougher league than 4A,” Jackson said. “There’s some traditional powers in 4A. In other classes, you know there will be certain teams you can expect to be in the state title game. In 4A? You don’t.”
When explaining what Class 4A is like to his players, Jackson said it’s similar to professional sports.
“It’s like a NFL model,” Jackson said. “There’s a salary cap. Everybody is even. You never know who’s going to win it.”
Conaway understands how tough Class 4A has been since he became Shiloh Christian’s head coach in 2014.
“It’s always been a very competitive class,” Conaway said. “There’s six to eight teams that have a chance to win.
“The athleticism in 4A is outstanding. The coaches and players are great. It’s a tough class.”
Burns said the Hillbillies are ready to get started and hope they can advance to their first title game since 2012.
“That motivated us,” said Burns of his team’s semifinal loss last season. “We want to get back deep in the playoffs.”
Warren at Crossett (Sept. 25)
Crossett went to Warren last season and won 38-35 in the teams’ 4A-8 Conference opener. That game helped catapult the Eagles to a league championship and they advanced to the Class 4A semifinals. Warren doesn’t lose often in the regular season under Bo Hembree. This year’s game in Crossett could determine who will be the 4A-8’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
Ozark at Dardanelle (Sept. 25)
Ozark was able to knock off Dardanelle last year. That victory allowed the Hillbillies to become the 4A-4’s No. 1 seed and have home-field advantage for most of the playoffs. Even though the game is early in the season, there’s no doubt that whoever wins between the Hillbillies and Sand Lizards will have an inside track on the 4A-4 championship.
Arkadelphia at Nashville (Sept. 25)
Trey Schucker’s first 4A-7 Conference game with Arkadelphia is a trip to Nashville. There’s no off weeks in the 4A-7 and the Badgers-Scrappers matchup proves it. Nashville kicked a game-winning field goal in the final 30 seconds to win at Arkadelphia last season. The Scrappers will look to make it two in a row against the Badgers.
Joe T. Robinson at Nashville (Oct. 9)
The 4A-7 Conference championship could come down to Robinson and Nashville. Robinson is the defending Class 4A state champion and dominated Nashville in their meeting last season in Little Rock. But this year, the game is in Nashville. Covid-19 guidelines won’t allow for a full crowd at Robinson-Nashville, which is a shame because this should be one of the most anticipated games in the state, regardless of classification.
Shiloh Christian at Prairie Grove (Oct. 9)
Shiloh Christian shouldn’t be tested too much in the 4A-1 Conference this season. But a trip to Prairie Grove is never easy. The Saints and Tigers have had some quality matchups over the years. Shiloh Christian has aspirations of reaching the Class 4A state championship game again. A loss here could make that road harder.