Leopards face familiar foe in semifinals

by Mark Oliver

After 13 grueling weeks of high school football, just four teams remain in the hunt for the Class 4A state championship. One of three 501 teams remaining, Malvern faces a familiar foe in conference rival Mena, which defeated the Leopards, 36-22, just two months ago.

“I think there is an advantage in playing a previous opponent,” said Malvern head coach Mike Scarbrough. “Taking nothing away from Mena, we know that we did not play our best football game that night. Our kids know that we can go into this week’s game knowing that we can compete with them.”

Around the school this week, the anticipation of the rematch has been great.

“Everyone is really high-spirited this week,” said senior running back and 501 Football Team honoree Montae Hernandez. “We’re all very excited about the game. You walk down the hallways each day and people stop you and tell you they’re glad we made it this far. It’s a great feeling.”

With lopsided wins over Cave City, Pea Ridge and Clinton, the Leopards have been dominant in the playoffs thus far. Hernandez says that the key to Malvern’s success is all about balance.

“Playing as a team has been our strength,” Hernandez said. “We’re balanced with our running and passing games and we couldn’t have made it this far without our line. As a team, we find weaknesses and try to attack them.”

The Bearcats boast a balanced offense and a stingy defense. Scarbrough assures that the Leopards will have their eyes on Mena’s key players on Friday night.

“[Mena running back] Jackson Daugherty is one of the best kids in our conference,” Scarbrough said. “He is so competitive and he plays so hard. He and [quarterback] Sage Kesterson are the heart and soul of their team. Our defensive emphasis has to be on Daugherty when he is in the backfield. I don’t think we can eliminate everything he does, but we have to understand where he is on every play and we have to tackle him. If we can contain the big play, it gives us a much better chance to win the game.”

“It helps a lot to know what we’re up against,” Hernandez said. “Earlier this year, we made mistakes against them. We missed tackles. Since that game, we’ve both gotten a whole lot better. We’re going to focus on being physical, disciplined and getting everything done the right way.”

With a win, the Leopards would earn the opportunity to play for the Class 4A state title against either Warren or Dardanelle. For Hernandez and the Leopards, making it to the finals would be the perfect reward for the team’s hard work this year.

“It would be a huge highlight of my life,” Hernandez said. “It’s something you’ll always remember — playing on the field with your brothers and doing something you love. It’s a great feeling.”

“I think [making it to the finals] would be confirmation of what we are doing at Malvern,” Scarbrough said. “Very few people see what goes into this program. To get to this point, the dedication from these kids is unbelievable. I’ve been at Malvern a long time and this is one of the best character groups that I’ve ever been around. It’s been a blessing to coach these guys, and I enjoy going to work with them every day. I think that’s why we have made it this far — because of the character of this football team.”

Malvern travels to Mena with kickoff at 7 p.m. Friday.