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Reclassification reflects population shift in Arkansas

by Rick Fires | June 13, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Heading west from Fayetteville to Prairie Grove, rows and rows of rooftops in the Sundowner Subdivision now dominate the landscape near a concrete bridge where cows and critters once appeared.

Driving into town, you can see a new junior high under construction a few years after a new high school was built. There are also plans for a Casey's General Store along the Hwy. 62 bypass. All are signs of population growth, which explains easily why the Prairie Grove Tigers will move up from Class 4A to Class 5A in football for the 2022-24 reclassification cycle.

Reclassification is based on enrollment and Prairie Grove leap-frogged over some other schools to land in Class 5A, where Farmington and Pea Ridge also moved in recent years. Prairie Grove will renew its conference rivalry with Farmington and the league will be more compact with Greenbrier and Vilonia likely moving out. But the competition will be tougher in the 5A-West, especially if Shiloh Christian joins the league after the private schools are assessed and slotted for reclassification.

A bump in classification for Prairie Grove is not a surprise and Gravette and/or Berryville could jump to Class 5A for the 2024-26 reclassification cycle. Harrison currently competes in Class 5A for football and Class 4A for other sports. That'll change beginning in 2022 when all the school's sports programs jump to Class 5A.

The growth of Northwest Arkansas is part of a decades-long trend in a population shift from east to west across the state. I started covering high school sports at Blytheville in 1984 when the Chickasaws played in the highest classification in a league with Marianna, Forrest City, West Helena, Jonesboro, and West Memphis. Way across the state, Prairie Grove in 1984 was grouped notches lower with Green Forest, Berryville, West Fork, Lincoln, and Gravette.

Blytheville has fallen all the way to Class 4A, a few notches in enrollment behind Huntsville, Gravette, and Berryville. Jonesboro remains an outlier in Northeast Arkansas, where the city serves as the hub that continues to draw new residents from the small towns that surround it. Jonesboro is pegged in reclassification for Class 7A, where the Hurricane will likely be grouped with teams like Cabot, Conway, Bryant, North Little Rock, Little Rock Central and Little Rock Southwest.

Jonesboro is particularly strong in basketball and there havesbeen years where I was convinced the Hurricane were the best team in the state, regardless of classification. They'll soon get their chance at overall supremacy against top programs like North Little Rock, Bryant, Fort Smith Northside, and Fayetteville in Arkansas' largest classification.

There's the possibility Northside and Fort Smith Southside could be reunited after being placed in separate conferences last year. For that to happen, Little Rock Catholic needs to earn enough points with the new Competitive Equity Factor rules to remain in 7A, which will increase the total to 17 in the highest classification and reunite Northside and Southside in the 7A-West, where the schools have a long history.

Teams will play one more season before reclassification for the 2022-24 cycle kicks in for all sports. Conference assignments will come at a later date but change is inevitable and coaches, especially veteran coaches who've learned to adapt, will do so again.

"It not anything new to me," Prairie Grove coach Danny Abshier said. "We went from 2A to 3A and from 3A to 4A. It's nothing different. You just go and get ready the best you can, in my opinion. That's what you do."

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