Sylvan Hills was a middle of the pack team of Bears in the 5A-Central last season, and head coach Jim Withrow believed after a midseason loss at Little Rock Christian that his team’s playoff lives were in jeopardy.

The Bears eked into the playoff picture in week nine. In 2013, the Bears appear better. Withrow says his club is a bit more mature.

"What’s different from 2012 is that we are older," Withrow said. "Our guys have been to Pulaski Academy and played. They’ve been to a playoff game."

When asked his assessment of his league, Withrow gave his opinion in relative detail of how the conference might shake out, but didn’t offer where his Bears might be slotted.

Withrow said he believes the Pulaski Academy Bruins are likely once again the class of the league.

"They’ve been there, they’ve done that," Withrow said. "They’ve got a lot of people they have to replace. But Kelley’s laying low, so that means he’s probably got something in the works. They are still going to be good, but how good we don’t know."

The Jacksonville Red Devils are in year two of running a spread offense, an offense that kept them in contention for a conference championship most of the season.

"They are one of the biggest schools as far as enrollment in the 5A," Withrow said. "They’ve got some good players, and I expect them to be in the mix."

Withrow’s old stomping ground, Little Rock Mills, offers their own set of issues for opposing defenses. The Comets are the only team in the conference that has resisted the spread offense, instead clinging to the Wing-T philosophy that gives them a slight edge in some games.

"They have a really good quarterback and fullback," Withrow said, "and they run the option really well. They are a lot more physical."

Withrow said the top teams in the conference can handle most of what Mills brings to the field, but it’s the mid to the bottom of the pack schools that have trouble with their change of pace.

Two members have new coaches.

Little Rock Christian hired Jeff Weaver, who has been an assistant at Greenwood, from Mena.

"They are excited over there," Withrow said. "Their players are going to be fired up. Like us, they are getting a better cycle of players."

Little Rock McClellan hired Maurice Moody, who has had stops in Blytheville and in West Memphis as an assistant.

Withrow said Moody is a good coach on a talented team and could become some dangerous party crashers.

"The last thing we need is for McClellan to get organized," Withrow said.

The wildcard of the season may be a road trip to Helena-West Helena.

"You never know what’s going to happen when you play Helena," Withrow said. "They can show up and be animals, or they may not want to get off the bus."

Going to sleep on North Pulaski isn’t an option either.

"They can sneak up and knock a team out of the playoffs," Withrow said.

Withrow said one area his team needs improvement on this season from 2012 is how they perform on the road.

"We have to handle it both ways," Withrow said." We are talking to them about being mature and doing well on the road, and we’ll manage it on a game-by-game basis."

The Bears will get plenty of early road seasoning with trips to Vilonia and Newport in the season’s first three weeks.

Both are good tests for what promises to be a very competitive 5A-Central playoff race.