Talk to Salem Greyhound head football coach Wayne Guiltner about the season his gridiron troops just finished, and it's hard not to notice the smile that creeps across his face.
And Guiltner, in his first season as head coach after leading Salem on an interim basis last year, has plenty of reasons to smile. The Greyhounds just wrapped up a 6-4 season that saw them make it to the Class AA state football playoffs after an absence of a couple of years.
"I think our program here at Salem is starting to grow," said Guiltner, who also doubles as the principal at Salem High School. "And now we're ready to take it to the next level. And that means making it to the playoffs every year. That's our goal."
That goal was squarely met this year as Salem, picked by 3AA Conference coaches in a pre-season poll for a sixth-place finish, shattered those meager predictions and ended conference play in the number three slot, earning a date with the Harding Academy Wildcats in the first round of the state tournament.
And while the Hounds' stay in the playoffs ended earlier than they hoped, losing to the Wildcats in Searcy in week one of the drive for a championship, Salem's efforts were not overlooked when it came time to hand out All-Conference honors.
Seniors Matt Arnold, a linebacker, and lineman Lonny Brown, along with junior classmates Dusty York at defensive back, and linebacker Thomas Cooper, were tabbed as 3AA All-Conference players on the defensive side of the football.
"Those guys were our leading tacklers," Guiltner said. "They really set the tone for us on defense. In this conference you need guys that can stop the run, and we had those."
In addition to his All-Conference selection as a defender, Cooper also received another honor for his work in the trenches on the offensive line.
"Thomas was named to the KAIT Channel 8 Coaches Super Team as an offensive lineman," said Guiltner. "This was voted on by coaches of all classifications in Region 8. It's quite a special honor for him. Thomas is our pulling guard, and he does a good job of putting people on their backs on offense, as well as the good job he did for us on defense."
This season, to go along with the traditionally stout defense that is the hallmark of Greyhound football, Salem also was home to an explosive offensive attack that resulted in four players grabbing All-Conference awards.
Junior quarterback Chad Willett, along with senior wideouts Kyle Estes and Mike Innis, joined senior tailback Phillip Taylor as members of the All-3AA squad.
"Chad had a school-record 1,200 yards passing this season," Guiltner said. "A lot of that was him, but he also had some good receivers and linemen that made it possible."
Innis also set a school record with almost 500 yards in receiving, while Taylor ran for 1,000 yards and also caught near 400 yards of passes.
Seniors Lynn and Luke Harber earned second team All-3AA honors on offense, while sophomores Dustin Vaughn and Derek Estes, along with senior Mike Seyler, were second team picks on defense.
"All those guys had a huge impact on this season and on our program as well," Guiltner said. "They played very well, and they were rewarded for the jobs they did. I'm proud of the effort of the whole team this year. Everybody on that sideline had something to do with our success. We'll lose a great deal of those players that made All-Conference to graduation, but hopefully we'll have some guys that are ready to step up and take their place."
And that's what tradition-rich programs do; they churn out All-Conference players and then have another set right behind them, ready to step up when the spotlight falls their way.
"We've had football here at Salem for awhile now (since 1976)," said Guiltner. "I think a big part of our growing tradition is that now we have kids whose parents played football here. Our kids now grow up watching football, and their parents can give them support. Our players today grow up wanting to play football here just like their dads did, and that's all part of our growing success. Football on a statewide level is maybe not like it is in Texas, but high school football in Arkansas is getting a lot of attention focused on it."
Another key cog in the Hounds' turnaround this year lies in Guiltner's support staff, assistant coaches Heath Ulmer and Chad Mitchell, a staff Guiltner is quick to praise for its hard work.
"We've got two really good assistant football coaches here," he said. "They're a big part of things. At one point this year, coach Ulmer's defense was ranked number 11 in Class AA. That's quite an accomplishment. And coach Mitchell's work with our special teams really paid off. We blocked punts and took them in for scores. I really think that every week we had an advantage on special teams over our opponents, and coach Mitchell played a big part in that."
The bottom line is that all the above factors were a huge factor in the Greyhounds playing for the 3AA title right up until the last game of the season, something they have not been able to accomplish the past several years, despite always having a talented roster. Which means an important component to this year's mix might have been an intangible.
"Leadership," answered Guiltner. "We had a very talented team, but we also had some great senior leadership. No one complained about anything we asked them to do. They just did it. We even lifted weights during the season and the guys didn't say one word about it. They just never stopped working to get better."