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Leopards claw ‘Cats for 4A title

OPINION by Bob Wisener | December 12, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Malvern quarterback Cedric Simmons looks behind him as he runs for a touchdown during the Class 4A state football championship against Harding Academy Saturday at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff of The Associated Press

No, I didn't see the Malvern Leopards coming. Harding Academy got the license plate of the bus that flattened it but not quickly enough to avert mayhem.

A superstitious respect for the Searcy school gained attending what is now Harding University led me to pick the Wildcats in the Class 4A football championship game Saturday.

The school's first of nine state football titles came in 1976, my senior year at the university, when smaller Arkansas teams played in the former Class B. Hall of Fame coach Bill Barden inspired in HA what to this day I call "the class of the Academy." Lou Holtz spoke of his "do-right rule," but Barden may have authored the text.

God should be kept neutral in athletic matters, said a Fayetteville minister whose church marquee, before a Southwest Conference classic in the 1960s, read "Nevertheless, beat Texas."

Without being pompous, Harding Academy athletes see themselves as favorites in any game they enter. In time, that spirit carried over into other sports at the school, boys basketball making a mark under former Eddie Sutton assistant (at Arkansas and Kentucky) James Dickey, married to one of the great UA women's players, Bettye Fiscus of Wynne. Rusty Garner holds the Lady Wildcat basketball team to a high standard, and HA is a past champion in baseball if not other sports that slip the mind.

Players fanned by that flame -- that they can be, in biblical terms, "more than conquerors" -- can be difficult to beat on, say, a football field. Whether in the safety of First Security Stadium on campus or at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, where the Wildcats sought their fourth consecutive state title Saturday.

A few HA alums from college days complained more about the TV coverage than the Wildcats' 64-39 loss to Malvern. Lightning, in a storm passing through central Arkansas, led to a weather delay of 3 hours, 28 minutes. Taping the game in the assigned time window proved incompatible, and streaming video efforts, I'm told, were fruitless.

(On the last night of 2022 Arkansas prep football, the Class 3A title game between winner Charleston and backyard rival Booneville went from about 8:30 p.m. to the 11 p.m. range).

For Malvern fans, waiting almost 30 years for a second state football championship, what did a few more hours make?

It took the Leopards that long to find another entry on the school's Mount Rushmore of running backs. Add Jalen Dupree to the names of Madre Hill, Stephen Mitchell and Harold Harris.

Like Hill against Lake Hamilton on the same field in the 1993 Class 3A final, Dupree was player of the game against Malvern. Children in lower grades at the school will hear for years of Dupree's 287 yards on 35 carries with four touchdowns, adding two sacks on defense. That bettered Madre's 243-yard, two-touchdown game against Lake Hamilton in a 20-9 Malvern victory that avenged a regular-season defeat at Wolf Stadium.

"Jalen Dupree, that's Jalen Dupree," said Malvern coach (and Lakeside High grad) J.D. Plumlee. "He made some big plays. He carried us.

"Madre is a Hall of Famer around Malvern, and I talked to (Dupree) this past summer and told him to go make his name. Madre respects him and is excited for him. This is a big-time honor for him. He's just a junior."

Malvern quarterback Cedric Simmons completed 8-of-13 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 158 yards and two scores, later extolling his teammate.

"I love that guy," Simmons said. "He's a brother. If I'm going to war, I want him on my side."

This triumph is magnified when one remembers how helpless Malvern looked when 0-10 in 2018. New coach Plumlee turned things around quickly -- his first Leopard team beating his former Fountain Lake squad, for one thing -- and the fourth year brought a championship. So, on a Mount Rushmore of Malvern coaches, put Plumlee up there with David Alpe, the 1993 football coach, and Andy Lloyd and Jess Martin in basketball.

Malvern sent Harding off to the halftime locker room in a daze after two touchdowns in the last 3:27 switched the score to 43-32. Owen Miller's quick pass to Kyler Hoover (eight catches for 202 yards and three scores) went for 80 yards and the same pair added the two-point conversion to make it 32-29, Harding. Malvern countered with Simmons' 67-yard pass to Dyleon Carradine down the middle, and Osiel Martinez kicked it to 36-32, Malvern.

Starting at its 13 with 1:13 left after Harding's first punt, Dupree thrust home a dagger with a 55-yard touchdown run.

"It was huge," Plumlee said. "They took the lead before half. We were trying to run the ball out and Jalen pops it."

Malvern's second-half defense completed the quorum, finishing with seven sacks (three by Akhir Smith) and holding the Wildcats to 80 yards rushing.

"We got after our defensive line," said Plumlee after a 353-yard first half for Harding. "I didn't think ... we were getting the pass rush we wanted and we got after them. We disguised some stuff in the secondary but the pass rush set us apart."

Miller completed 24-of-30 passes for 393 yards with three touchdowns but was lost without a running game.

Dupree kept going, his coach said, after the team ran out of refreshments during a shortened halftime (20 minutes to 15).

"Jalen came to me and said he was hungry," Plumlee said, "and I told him I didn't have any food and (he) said he plays better when he's hungry."

Neither coach nor player should worry about chowing down any time soon -- or picking up the tab, either.

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