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story.lead_photo.caption Prairie Grove coach Danny Abshier (left) speaks to Clay Fidler on Nov. 18 during their game against Central Arkansas Christian at Tiger Stadium in Prairie Grove. - Photo by Andy Shupe

Danny Abshier gets emotional thinking about how far his program -- and his conference -- has come in his 24 years as Prairie Grove's football coach.

Photo by Andy Shupe
Coach Danny Abshier’s Prairie Grove Tigers are one of three 1-4A Conference teams remaining in the Class 4A playoffs. It’s the first time in Arkansas that three teams from the same conference have been among the final four teams remaining in Class 4A and below.

"You get a tear in your eye because not many people remember what it was like, but I do," Abshier said. "Riding home on a bus with tears in your eyes thinking, 'How can we get a win? How can we get a break?' And now, you see what all we've been through to get here, and it makes you happy."

Friday’s Tickets

Warren at Prairie Grove

KICKOFF 7 p.m.

WHERE Tiger Stadium


RECORDS Warren 13-0. Prairie Grove 12-0.

HOOTEN’S RANKING Warren is No. 2 in Class 4A. Prairie Grove is No. 1.

HOOTEN’S LINE Prairie Grove by 3

Shiloh Christian at Pea Ridge

KICKOFF 7 p.m.

WHERE Blackhawk Stadium


RECORDS Shiloh Christian 11-2. Pea Ridge 12-1.

HOOTEN’S RANKING Shiloh Christian is No. 4 in Class 4A. Pea Ridge is No. 2.

HOOTEN’S LINE Pea Ridge by 9

The Tigers are one of three 4A-1 Conference teams remaining in the 4A playoffs. Prairie Grove (12-0) hosts 4A-8 Warren (13-0) while Pea Ridge (12-1) hosts Shiloh Christian (11-2) on Friday in semifinal action. For the second straight year, the 4A-1 will have at least one team in the state title game next week in Little Rock.

It's the first time in Arkansas history that three teams from the same conference have been among the final four teams remaining in Class 4A and below.

Just to note, the playoffs expanded from two to four teams from each conference in 1995, so the feat has only been possible during the past two decades. Two teams from the same league have made the semifinals multiple times, but never three.

"That's something the entire conference can brag about," said Pea Ridge first-year coach Stephen Neal said. "We thought it was a tough conference all year long, and I think that point has been proven here at the very end of the last two weeks of the season."

Add in that Gravette, the conference's No. 4 seed, knocked off Pocahontas on the road in the first round, and the 4A-1 has even more reasons to puff out its chest.

"It's proof of what we already knew, that our conference is full of great coaches, great players and great programs," said Shiloh Christian coach Jeff Conaway. "It's something that we're very proud of, but also something that we want to finish in the right way."

Prairie Grove defeated Shiloh Christian (45-15) and Pea Ridge (42-21) in back-to-back weeks. The Blackhawks beat the Saints 30-13 in the regular season finale.

The Tigers have never played Warren, a perennial powerhouse in the state along with Nashville, which Pea Ridge upended 53-28 in the second round of the playoffs.

"Prairie Grove has become a team that we can talk about with the likes of Warren and Nashville, because they're getting to that level," said Barry Groomes of Hooten's Arkansas Football.

Groomes said the 4A-1's performance this postseason, as well as in recent postseasons, will factor into the publication's preseason rankings next year. After losing several key players to graduation off last season's team that reached the state finals, Prairie Grove began this season at No. 13. Pea Ridge, coming off a semifinals appearance, but with a first-year coach, was No. 9 and Shiloh Christian was No. 3.

"The way Northwest Arkansas has been growing, we were kind of waiting for this to happen, but for years, it didn't," Groomes said. "Now, those teams are getting into the postseason and winning, so it definitely can be considered an elite conference."

Gravette coach Bill Harrelson had the fourth best team in the loaded 4A-1 and wasn't surprised by the run the top three teams have made. With his Lions out, he's become a fan of his conference foes and even attended the Blackhawks' 36-24 win against Hamburg last week, the team that ended his season with a 42-10 loss.

"It's easy to see why those three teams are in the semifinals and, hopefully, two of them will be in the finals," Harrelson said. "We're really proud of what they've done in making our conference look as good as we've looked. They're getting the conference a lot more notoriety and have set a standard of what all of us are trying to achieve."

Harrelson said the three teams are "a little different, but a lot of alike" in terms of their recipes for success. All three play physical defense and feature multiple offensive weapons and special teams standouts. All are well-coached with highly motivated players executing elaborate schemes. All have strong support with loyal fan bases and every game live streamed online.

Another common denominator is that all three are led by savvy quarterbacks in Prairie Grove's Zeke Laird, Pea Ridge's Jakota Sainsbury and Shiloh Christian's Connor Reece.

"It's hard to find any weaknesses in any of them," Harrelson said. "Their quarterbacks set the table for them and that's huge, especially when you're going down the stretch run of the playoffs."

Abshier, whose Tigers are making their third semifinals appearance in five seasons, said sustaining success will be key for the rest of the state to keep considering the 4A-1 a power conference. It also will help if one of the three can return with a state championship, something that has eluded Prairie Grove and Pea Ridge, but not Shiloh Christian, which has won seven state titles.

Regardless, seeing three 4A-1 teams in the final four is an accomplishment.

"I can remember the ups and downs and getting sick of hearing what conference is the strongest or what is the weakest," Abshier said. "We got tired of hearing the 4A-1 is the doormat and the 4A-7 or another conference is the strongest conference (in the state), so it's great to be able to change that around, at least for a year, and that makes you smile."

Sports on 12/01/2016

Print Headline: Three conference teams in semifinals a first in state history

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