2012 geography redraws 7A map
August 26, 2012
Fort Smith Northside and Fort Smith Southside helped transform the 7A-West Conference into the toughest in the state
In fact, in 1988, the teams played for the state championship.
Beginning this season, the two Fort Smith schools have a new home in the 7A/6A-Central Conference and will be replaced in the new 7A/6A-West Conference by Van Buren and Siloam Springs, which is making the jump from Class 5A.
So, instead of turning north onto Interstate-540 for most of its away games, the Rebels and Grizzlies will continue east along Interstate 40 for league games as far away as Little Rock.
It’s a major change in high school sports for a state whose population continues to shift from east to west.
“It’s going to be different, for sure, and there’s going to be more travel,” said Northside Coach Darrell Henry, who played high school football at Southside. “You hate to lose those relationships and rivalries we’ve established in the 7A-West through the years, but on the flip side we’re going to re-establish some rivalries we had going back many, many years.”
Fort Smith had one public high school before the arrival of Southside in the early 1960s, and the Grizzlies competed in a league that included the largest schools from Little Rock, El Dorado, Pine Bluff, Hot Springs and Texarkana. Northside joined Southside in the AAAA-West Conference in 1981, and the two Fort Smith schools soon began to develop rivalries with teams in Northwest Arkansas, most notably Fayetteville and Springdale.
The league eventually grew to eight teams and remained steady until 2006, when Springdale Har-Ber arrived and forced Russellville from the 7A-West to the 7A-Central. No team outside of the West has won a state championship since 2004, and the league has provided the two finalists in each of the past six seasons.
Northside, which last won a state championship in 1999, has won eight state titles. Southside has won seven, with its last coming in 2006.
“That’s a lot of tradition leaving our league,” said Barry Lunney, who coached for 16 years at Southside before taking over at Bentonville in 2005. “No disrespect to Van Buren and Siloam Springs, but I don’t care for it. We’re losing two great programs, and I hate to see that happen.”
Northside and Southside will retain some connection to the former 7A-West with nonconference games this season. The Rebels will play Rogers Heritage and Springdale Har-Ber, while Northside will meet Rogers Heritage and Rogers High. More games between the former league members are likely to pop up in the future.
“There’s only 16 schools in 7A, so you see each other quite a bit,” Southside Coach Jeff Williams said. “We’ve played teams from the Central in nonconference games or the playoffs in recent years, except Little Rock Hall and Parkview. Our travel won’t even be that bad this year because we play at Northside and Greenwood, which is just down the road, and our longest road game is at Little Rock Catholic.”
The arrival of the Fort Smith schools and Greenwood could help end the dominance teams from the West have held over the 7A/6A-Central Conference. Southside has won seven state championships since 1983, and Greenwood was a dominant team in Class 5A, where the Bulldogs won five state championships in the past seven years.
Southside was picked first with Conway second and Greenwood third in a preseason poll of the 7A/6A-Central coaches.
“Southside and Northside bring a a lot of tradition to our league, and Greenwood has been on top for a while in 5A” Russellville Coach Jeff Holt said. “Greenwood is scary good, and it’s not like they’re making a huge jump in classification. They’re very well-coached with Rick Jones, and they’ve got a lot of kids in their football program.
“They’re going to continue to do very well, I’m sure.”
Although Southside and Northside were both reluctant to give up their long-standing membership in the 7A-West, there is some excitement about the changes both programs will face with the move to the 7A/6A-Central.
“Our kids are fired up,” Henry said. “Having Greenwood as a conference opponent, especially, is immediately a big game for us. They have a tremendous program and fan support, so it should be exciting for everyone involved.”