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Reclassification reflects shifting population in Arkansas

The numbers are in and the results are clear.

The great migration from east to west in our state continues, with Northwest Arkansas the likely destination. They're coming by way of SUVs and Chevy trucks instead of covered wagons, stagecoaches and ponies.

If I were still in a sociology class in college, I'd be knee-deep in statistical data, trying to track the shift in population. Now, I just wait every two years for the Arkansas Activities Association to do the job for me.

The AAA, the governing body for high school sports in Arkansas, released its daily enrollment figures last week for the 2018-20 reclassification cycle. Conference football assignments will be made in the fall.

So, what do we know?

Less than a dozen years after Springdale split, the school district is again tops in the state with Springdale High No. 1 (2,413) and Springdale Har-Ber (2,402) close behind. Five of the 10 largest schools in the state are located in Benton and Washington counties, which should surprise no one who's had to fight rush-hour traffic on I-49.

The surprise to me is the rapid pace residents in our state continue to flee the Arkansas Delta.

I worked for five years in the 1980s at a newspaper in Blytheville when the Chickasaws, Forrest City Mustangs, West Memphis Blue Devils, Marianna Trojans, Helena-West Helena Central Cougars and Jonesboro Hurricane formed the best basketball conference in the largest classification in the state. In 2018, Marianna will continue its descent into Class 2A while Blytheville will be at the low end of Class 5A.

In 1991, I went to work in Pine Bluff the year after Pine Bluff High, Pine Bluff Dollarway, Fordyce and Rison each won state football championships in what Arkansas high school historian Leland Barclay labeled the "Cotton Belt sweep." Pine Bluff will be at the lower end of Class 6A for 2018-20 while Dollarway slips from 4A to 3A.

So, what about teams in Northwest Arkansas?

The 7A-West will remain intact with Van Buren as the only team outside of Benton and Washington counties. Huntsville will bump up to Class 5A, which will ease travel for Farmington after the Cardinals played conference road games last fall at Greenbrier and Maumelle.

"It will absolutely help in regard to the amount of time we will have to travel," Farmington coach Mike Adams said. "Plus, Huntsville is a long time rival for us so that adds a little spice to conference play."

A proposal by Clarksville High School, which will be voted on this summer, could throw reclassification into disarray if adopted. Farmington, for instance, would return to its former home in the 4A-1 Conference for all sports except for football, where it would continue to compete in the 5A-West Conference.

"That makes no sense to me, but it has a do-pass recommendation," Adams said.

The growth in Northwest Arkansas is reflected in Class 4A, where Pea Ridge, Prairie Grove, Gravette and Berryville are among the largest schools in the division. Their football teams could join Farmington and Huntsville in the near future to form an All-Northwest Conference similar to the 7A-West.

Elkins earned headlines in Class 3A last year when the Elks went 9-3 and won a conference championship in football for the first time since 1993. But Elkins will make the jump to Class 4A in 2018 and likely travel south for 4A-4 Conference games with Dardanelle, Ozark and Pottsville.

"This comes at a point right now when we're really doing some good things in 3A, but there's not a whole lot we can do about it," Elkins coach Chad Harbison said. "It's a different level of competition in 4A and it'll take a while to get caught up. But our administration is committed to athletics and they'll help us make that jump."

Decatur remains near the bottom for enrollment in Class 2A, where schools often struggle to field football teams. The biggest question is what to do about Yellville-Summit, a school in north central Arkansas that could be placed in a far-ranging league with Decatur and Hackett.

Those are long bus rides for conference games no high school players should have to make.

Sports on 05/07/2017

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