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El Dorado, Marion set to meet in semifinals

by Tony Burns | November 26, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

Marion stands between El Dorado and a berth in the 6A state championship game. It’s the same Marion the Wildcats ran through 36-7 earlier in the season.

Or, is it?

The Patriots have won five in a row since that loss, including an upset over Benton (59-37) last week. El Dorado coach Steven Jones said he wasn’t surprised at Marion’s win over the Panthers.

“The first thing when we scouted Marion the first time we played them, I really felt like they were one of the better teams we had faced all season,” said Jones. “I don’t think they played very well against us. They have some really good players. Their quarterback can do a lot with the football. Their tailback is very dynamic. He’s had a couple 300-yard games since we played them. That’s impressive. They’ve got some good players.”

El Dorado (9-2) has won seven games in a row, including last week’s 48-27 triumph over Lake Hamilton. 

“El Dorado is playing great,” said Marion coach Lance Clark. “They played a tough non-conference and came out of that largely unscathed. They ran into Jonesboro. I think they’d like to have that back. Since Jonesboro, they’ve really kind of been hammering teams

“They’re as explosive as any team in the state 1A through 7A. Heck, we’ve seen Bryant up close and personal and I’m not sure Bryant is any more explosive on the offensive side of the ball than El Dorado is.”

The first meeting proved one of the Wildcats’ most dominating overall performances. Offensively, Sharmon Rester was limited to 139 yards passing on 9-of-21 attempts. But he rushed for 157 yards with Shadarious Plummer running for 120.

Defensively, El Dorado’s starting defense pitched a shutout through three quarters with the Patriots scoring late in the game against the back-ups.

“We think El Dorado’s defensive line is maybe the toughest we’ve seen,” said Clark. “They’ve got a lot of talent. They’ve got an identity. Coach Jones and Coach Outlaw do a good job. They have defined identities on both sides of the ball. They know who they are and they lean into that and do a good job with it.”

Perhaps a challenge for El Dorado’s coaches could be convincing their players this isn’t the same team they dominated earlier.

“I think it has more to do with what’s at stake and less to do with the opponent,” said Jones. “We’re dialed in because of the opportunity we have in front of us. It doesn’t matter who comes in here, we’re going to be ready to play.”

The Patriots haven’t changed much since the first meeting. Quarterback Ben Gerrard was injured in the first game but has returned to the field.

“It’s a resilient team, a resilient group of kids,” Clark began. “What’s kind of happened, I got in late and we tried to forge our identity. That took a little more time. It took some time for us to all figure each other out and figure out exactly where we needed to go and the right direction. Who we are and how to best maximize who we are and what this community is about. When you find that marriage of the identity of the community, the identity of the program and channeling that into athletics, it can be a really special thing. It took some time to get that marriage and figure out who our players are and how they perform in those moments. We had to do some trial and error early on in the year. As the year went on, we honed in on who we are and what we’re all about. We’ve been playing well since then.”

Jones had his own opinion on what the Patriots are doing differently.

“I think it’s an execution thing,” he said. “There’s not a lot schematically that they’re doing different. I think they’re just playing much better. I didn’t think they played very well against us the first go-around. I think their coaches would tell you that. I think they’ve got their bad game out of the way. They played really well in the last couple of weeks. We’ll have a very good team coming in to play us.”

From the Wildcats’ standpoint, what’s to fix after such a dominant victory? Do they go back with the exact same game plan?

“I think you just focus on who you are and what you do,” said Jones. “We did go back and look at the game and try to find a few things we did well and may want to go back to and also maybe take a look at what we missed where we could’ve attacked another area. Just have an even better plan going into this game now that we know a lot of how they’ll line up against us.

“Defensively, it’s the same story. Coach Outlaw is going to go back and make sure if they had some big plays, see what happened on those and get that fixed and be ready.”

Both teams will have something bigger to play for than revenge or payback. The winner will go to War Memorial Stadium and play for a championship. What more motivation is needed?

“The key is going to be the line of scrimmage. It always is in big games. You’re going to have to win the line of scrimmage on both sides,” said Clark. “That’s easier said than done but you’re going to have to control that. You can’t have turnovers. You have to have a lack of penalties. I think special teams could play a role in these kind of games. But as much as anything, it’s going to be about mindset. It’s going to be about which team handles adversity. Which teams and staffs handle the adversities of a football game and a playoff atmosphere. What team handles those distractions the best during this week, Thanksgiving week, keeps their mind on what they’re supposed to do and which team on Friday controls their attention and plays with a toughness and a mindset that will hold dividends in the fourth quarter.

“It’ll be a good game. I know we’re excited. We’re familiar with each other. It’ll be fun.”

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