As offensive coordinator for the Billy Dawson-coached Class 6A champions of 2016, Lakeside alum J.D. Plumlee looked like a young coach on the rise.
Russellville, one of the last Arkansas schools one would expect to see playing for a state title in football, throttled Greenwood, a blue-chip stock, 37-23 at War Memorial Stadium.
Dawson was off to Class 7A Fayetteville, Plumlee following for one season until going out on his own as a head coach.
Fountain Lake, with a state title (under Tommy Gilleran) as late as 2009, hired Plumlee the following spring. Its ascent to Class 4A meant playing a steady diet of traditional and upcoming powers including Arkadelphia and Nashville.
Twenty-five years after winning a state title for coach David Alpe with a team led by future Razorback star Madre Hill, Malvern crashed to 0-10 in 2018. The Leopards were shut out in three of their last four games, outscored 212-20.
A 35-0 October loss to Fountain Lake at Claude Mann Stadium showcased the Leopards' future head coach, although not immediately apparent. Malvern pitched for Plumlee and hired him in spring 2019. In his fourth year in Hot Spring County, the Leopards are still playing in early December (the man Fountain Lake hired to replace Plumlee never coached a game at the school, assistant Kenny Shelton coming to the aid of the program with his staff including former Cutter Morning Star coach T.C. Shamel. The Cobras moved this season to an 8-man league.)
With a 27-21 overtime victory at Warren last week, Malvern is home against Nashville in the Class 4A semifinals. Farther down Interstate 30, in a battle of unbeaten teams, Arkadelphia plays defending 3A champion Harding Academy in the other semifinal Friday, both starting at 7 p.m. The winners square off next week at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, where the 1993 Leopards, in Hill's final high school game, avenged a regular-season defeat to defending champion Lake Hamilton in the 3A final.
Malvern is 10-2 and Nashville 10-3, second and third seeds from 4A-7, the Leopards getting the higher seed with a 48-34 October victory at Scrapper Stadium. Despite a 49-13 home loss to Arkadelphia, Malvern has beaten Pottsville (34-14), Lamar (41-31) and Warren in the playoffs, the last two games on the road.
Nashville won the eighth state title in school history in 2015 under new coach Mike Volarvich, former offensive coordinator for Scott Maxfield at Henderson State. Jared McBride, 13th-year coach at Lakeside, quarterbacked Nashville to a state championship in the 2000s, when the Scrappers claimed three titles.
Nashville stayed strong for a while after the 2016 team, unbeaten in 11 games, lost to Pea Ridge in the second round of the playoffs. The Scrappers were 10-3 in 2018 and 11-2 in 2019 but plunged to 4-6 last year, losing 54-21 to Fountain Lake at home and 40-19 at Malvern.
Nashville has wobbled at times this year (74-42 win over rival Hope, 49-12 home loss to Arkadelphia) but has won four in a row. The streak includes a 36-35 nonconference game at Lonoke and Friday's 63-62 quarterfinal playoff decision at Elkins.
Malvern's only defeat besides that to Arkadelphia in Week 10 came early, 55-29 at Hernando, Mississippi.
The year's first championship game comes at 7 p.m. Thursday with the 8-man pairing of Rector and Izard County at War Memorial Stadium. Friday's title games pit Interstate 30 neighbors Carlisle and Hazen (Class 2A) at noon and Bentonville vs. four-time defending champion Bryant at 7 p.m. On Saturday, it's Little Rock Parkview vs. Shiloh Christian (Class 5A) at noon and Greenwood vs. Pulaski Academy (Class 6A) at 6:30 p.m.
Class 3A semifinals Friday are Booneville at Melbourne and Charleston at Rison, those winners meeting at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at WMS in the last Arkansas prep football game of the season. The 4A semifinal winners play at noon.