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Football: Four former Southwest Elite champs make up strong field

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The Bixby (Okla.) Spartans became the first Oklahoma high school in eight years to win the Southwest Elite 7-on-7 crown in 2016.

With a run similar this year, they could become the tournament's first back-to-back winners. Then-junior quarterback Tanner Griffin and Bixby knocked off Aurora Christian (Ill.) 20-12 in the finals last season, jump-starting what would be a 10-win season and third consecutive 6A-II state championship.

"We've seen that a lot," Shiloh Christian football coach Jeff Conaway said of teams carrying the experience of the tournament back home. "The quality and just the caliber of tournament that we have and the teams that show up year after year, it's just really strong."

Southwest Elite 7-on-7 Showcase

Four former Southwest Elite champions -- Bixby, Fayetteville, Bentonville High and Shiloh Christian -- make up yet another strong field in the event's ninth year. Shiloh Christian, aiming for its first tournament title since 2009, is in Pool A with Bixby.

"We feel there's a great group coming in," Conaway added. "I know everybody is going to leave on Saturday and believe their team got better."

The Saints won 11 games in 2016, advancing to their first Class 4A semifinal appearance since 2010 and, again, should have one of the more explosive offenses in 2017 behind senior quarterback Landon Brown and talented receivers Jaret Russ and Jake Nelson (935 yards, five TDs in 2016).

Seven of the eight 7A-West schools will be represented this weekend. New-look Fayetteville and up-and-coming Bentonville West will kick off Pool B play at 9 a.m. today at Harmon Field.

Junior Darius Bowers takes over at quarterback for the Purple'Dogs, and receiver Cody Gray returns following a 600-yard junior season. The Wolverines' Will Jarrett and Jadon Jackson, who has numerous Power Five conference college offers, are players to watch after strong sophomore seasons.

"Our whole deal is just to go out and compete," West coach Bryan Pratt said. "If our kids go out and compete against the high-caliber teams like the Fayettevilles, Broken Arrows and Fort Smith Northsides then we feel like we'll compete in the conference. And we'll get to find out how we are right off the bat."

Bentonville High and Springdale High, each with a number of big-play threats, begin play in Pool C at 9 a.m. today at Jarrell Williams Bulldog Stadium. Bentonville senior Kam'Ron Mays-Hunt, the conference's top returning receiver, finished with 1,195 yards and nine touchdowns and earned All-State honors last season.

Red'Dogs quarterback Layne Hutchins is back and healthy after suffering a lower-leg injury in Springdale's opening-round playoff loss to Bryant last season. He threw for 2,223 yards in 2016. Receiver Alex Thompson returns after leading the team with 743 yards and five scores his junior year.

"We throw and catch so much, this is really a chance to take what we do, take our stuff, and go apply it to a competitive situation," said Springdale coach Zak Clark, entering his third season with the Red'Dogs.

The 27-team field features schools from six states, including Giltner High of Nebraska, Gibson Southern of Indiana and Valley Center of Kansas. Aurora Christian hopes to avenge last year's championship loss to Bixby, and former Fayetteville coach Bill Blankenship returns to the region with his Owasso (Okla.) Rams.

"It's always fun. It's great to see some friends in the profession that we don't always get to see," Conaway said. "It's great to have quality competition and players on our campus. It's fun for everybody."

Gentry, Elkins, Little Rock Christian, Fort Smith Northside, Alma, Marion and Russellville round out the participants from Arkansas.

Sports on 07/14/2017

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