LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Harding Academy Head Coach Neil Evans can lean on experience. “These seniors have never known not playing in a state championship."
Harding Academy has reached this stage before. On the other side of the coin, its opponent Malvern has not.
“Their eyes lit up when they walked in the stadium,” Malvern Head Coach JD Plumlee said. “It would be the first time since ’93 and be the second in Malvern history so it would mean a lot.”
The Leopards are ready to etch their names in the school's history book.
"We want to make a big statement for Malvern," Malvern junior tackle Vinny Winters said. "Malvern’s back."
Harding is looking to claim its fourth consecutive state title and its first since moving up to Class 4A.
“Ever since the move up to 4A, the opponents have been tougher," Harding Academy senior Levi Mercer said. "People have been more excited about Wildcat football."
Both teams completed improbable comebacks to reach the 4A state championship game. The Leopards found themselves down big two weeks ago at Warren.
“When you’re down 21 at halftime, stay calm and come back," Malvern quarterback Cedric Simmons said. "That gives you a big confidence boost."
And just last week, the Wildcats' season came down to the leg of Kyle Ferrie, as the all-state kicker capped off a two-score comeback with a last-second field goal to beat Arkadelphia.
“[It's] probably my favorite game I’ve played as a Wildcat,” Mercer said.
Whether it’s Harding hoisting the trophy in their first year in the 4A or Malvern getting its first ring in 29 years, the 4A season is closing with a bang.
“It’s like capping off a perfect run,” Mercer said. “[We've] done it three times let’s do it again."
Winters is ready to get on the field.
“We’ve been talking about it all year and now we’re here," Winters said. "Might as well get the dub Saturday.”
The 4A state championship game kicks off at 12:10 p.m. on Saturday, followed by the 3A title game between Booneville at Charleston at 6:30 p.m.
Both games are at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock and will be televised on Arkansas PBS.