MALVERN, Ark. — For the first time since 1994, Malvern is entering a season as the defending state champions.
“We’re on cloud nine,” Malvern head coach JD Plumlee said. “When I got here five years ago, we were coming off of 0-10, and there was no buzz, and now here we are. It’s special. You’ve got bad and good stress, and right now, it’s good stress.”
As much as the community is buzzing, the Leopards are focusing on the task.
“Everybody expects us to win it again, but we can't hear that," running back and Colorado State commit Jalen Dupree said. "We have to keep working... If we hear that, it’ll sneak up on us, and we’ll be out first round.”
Tight end Kealen Juniel agrees.
“Man, it’s a lot of noise," Juniel said. "But our coaches tell us every day [that we] can’t get caught up in it.”
And they're taking a unique approach to tackle the attention.
“We try to take the approach as if we lost it, see what can we do to get better,” Plumlee said.
Senior left tackle Vinny Winters thinks that approach is paying off.
“Our standards are high now," Winters said. "The coaches are pushing us every day. There are no days off at all.”
Malvern may have surprised some last year, but Dupree said those days are gone.
“Every week is going to be like a championship game," Dupree said. "Everybody’s trying to beat us, so we have to come out like a championship game every week. No plays off."
The Leopards have to replace all-state quarterback Cedric Simmons, but Plumlee said not to expect too much change offensively.
“Our identification is running the football,” Plumlee said.
It helps when you return the entire offensive line and Dupree, who is scouted as a Division I talent.
“Jalen [Dupree], man, he’s a dude," Winters said. "I love that guy."
The feeling is mutual between the running back and his offensive line.
“This is the best O-line in the state,” Dupree said. “They come every day. They work. It’s the best O-line anyone could ask for."
Combine that with a host of returners on defense, and this Leopard team is ready to make history.
Malvern has never won back-to-back state titles.
“Many people compare us to that 1993 class, but we want to be the best class to ever come to Malvern,” Juniel said.
The Leopards' first home game is Sept. 1st against Glen Rose, and Dupree said they’re ready to show out.
“This is the place to be on Friday nights because we’re going to give you a show for sure," Dupree said.
Malvern opens the season on Aug. 25 against Walnut Grove (Prosper, Texas) at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia.