In season that will remembered by all fans for both good and not-so-good reasons, the Class 3A state football championship was won by the Harding Academy Wildcats by the score of 71-44 over the McGehee Owls. Saturday’s championship game was held at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, the same place where the season started in August. Governor Asa Hutchinson had just cleared the way for the season to start when he participated in the ceremonial coin flip prior to the Salt Bowl game between Benton and Bryant High Schools. The Salt Bowl began the high school football season that began under a cloud of uncertainty all summer as to if it would be played and would remain in doubt for much of the season.
The season began with the cancellation of spring football practices and the start of summer workouts in June. Traditional off-season practices, along with academic classes and all spring sports were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. High school athletes, especially seniors, were immediately cast into doubt as to if the season would be played.
As the summer moved into the month of July, sports were able to have highly-restricted workouts that were full of modifications and precautions. The July workouts gave way to eventual helmet and shorts workouts and finally into preseason scrimmages. When the season started in late August, everyone held their collective breaths to see how long the season would actually last. Schools moved up their senior night ceremonies, usually reserved for the last home game, to their first home games to ensure that seniors would be recognized before the season was prematurely interrupted or even cancelled.
The pandemic created controversy in all fall sports as to how schools would make up games, or, qualify for the playoffs if games had to be missed due to COVID reasons. In an unprecedented move by the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA), the Association ruled that if a team or teams from a conference were forced to cancel a game due to COVID reasons, then every team in that conference would become automatically eligible to participate in the state playoffs. As I spoke with area coaches throughout the season, the consensus of opinion of those coaches was that the AAA regretted making the ruling, as it became very difficult to determine how a bracket could be devised that would include the teams who would have normally not qualified for the playoffs but chose to do so in this year. Outside of the five qualifying teams from each conference, there were just three non-qualifying schools across the state who eventually chose to participate in the play-in round that forced the entire playoffs to be pushed back one week. One of the three teams was from the River Valley region; the Hackett Hornets. Hackett chose to play in the play-in round before week one of the state playoffs. The Hornets won their play-in game and lost the next week in round one of the playoffs at Booneville.
And with respect to the River Valley area, there were three teams that had great years and played well in the state playoffs. The Charleston Tigers, coached by second year head coach, Ricky May, won the 3A-1 conference by going undefeated in conference play. Playing with a very young team, the Tigers defeated Mayflower in the first round and lost to eventual state semifinalist Glen Rose in the second round. The future is very bright for the Tigers as they will return the majority of this season’s team along with a very talented freshman team that will move up to play in 2021.
The Booneville Bearcats suffered through multiple opponents who cancelled games, but were able to go undefeated in conference play to win the 3A-4 conference. Booneville lost in the second round of the state playoffs to eventual state champion Harding Academy. The Bearcats defeated Paris in Week 9 of the regular season in a showdown with the Eagles for first place in the conference.
The Paris Eagles, losing to Booneville in week nine, finished their season as the conference runner-up in 3A-4. The Eagles defeated Salem and Greenland in the state playoffs before losing at Hoxie in the quarterfinals. Coach Tyler Clark’s team broke many school records with respect to wins and consecutive wins, and advanced the team to its furthest point in the state playoffs ever.
So as Saturday night’s final came to an end, it was difficult for me not to reflect back on what a crazy and “up and down” season it had been. But in this season to be thankful for so many things and also in a season of so many tragedies with respect to the pandemic and many of us not being able to be with family members during the holidays, I am thankful that so many high school student athletes had the chance to play the games they love and had worked so hard for the opportunity to play. It would have been a tragedy for them not to have had the opportunity to play.
Thanks to all of the players, coaches, and administrators for doing a great job in protecting everyone concerned and still giving the kids a chance to play. For the fans of each community, the opportunity to go to the stadium and cheer for their hometown teams was therapy in itself.
Congratulations to all of the teams this year, and congratulations to the Harding Academy Wildcats for being ranked number one for most of the season and for completing the journey by winning the state championship on the field last Saturday.
Resident Press has enjoyed bringing you all of the action, and we look forward to seeing you at high school football stadiums across the state again next year!