A major problem with the Vilonia Eagles last season was the breaks went their way.
The Eagles started the season with high hopes with 19 seniors. They finished battered and limping with only four left.
"I have never seen anything like it," said coach Jim Stanley. "You name it, we had it. And it wasn’t minor stuff that sidelines you for a couple of weeks. It was concussions and broken bones. We had five knees and not just the normal ACL and MCL. We had three players who could have played this year sustain career-ending injuries. It started in Week 2 and continued for the whole season. We averaged two kids taken off by ambulance each week."
A promising sophomore class had to grow up before its time. Juniors took elevated roles.
"The good thing is that despite everything, we kept battling," Stanley said. "The kids have come back this year with a good attitude and are working hard. We can have a good team if we stay healthy."
Quarterback Jared Willis is a three-year starter and has the speed to operate nicely in Vilonia’s double-wing attack and the arm to challenge an opposing secondary.
Junior running back Jeremiah Santiago was thrust into a starting role most of last season. Juniors Cameron Broach and Tripp Reed give the Eagles their typical threats on an attack based on deception. Senior Dillon Halstead, who sat out last year because of sickness, is perhaps the Eagles’ best athlete and should also see playing time in the backfield along with senior Cole Heykoop and junior Dylan Wimberly.
Bradley Stocks, a two-way player, ranks as one of the best tight ends in the conference.
The line has added strength and will be led by seniors Seth Varner, Parker Eldridge and juniors Shane Steward, Jared Byrd and Braxton Barber.
Eldridge, a strong pass rusher, is a mainstay up front along with Steward and Josh Dunn.
Tyler Gray, who was the Eagles’ leading tackler last season with more than 100, should be one of the best linebackers in the conference. He’s flanked by Stocks and Wade Richards.
Willis is a returning starter at safety. Heykoop and Zac Cole give the Eagles speed at the corners.
Can the Eagles, who have strong frontline talent, stay healthy and the regulars have their conditioning hold after most playing both ways?
The first three (non-conference games against Sylvan Hills, Harding Academy and Beebe) will tell a lot and set the tone for the season.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
Gray, 6-2, 210 with 4.7 speed, could develop into a college prospect with a good season at linebacker.