Marion High School Athletics


Marion football looks to build on back-to-back semifinal runs

Photo Credit: Donnie Smith, Smith Artisan Photography


Lance Clark soaks in a rare, quiet moment in the Marion football coaches office. The second-year Marion head coach has enjoyed few of them since arriving last June in Crittenden County. Clark's first group of Patriots made plenty of noise last fall. The 2021 Pats picked up victories on the field against traditional rivals Wynne, West Memphis, and 6A East champion Jonesboro during the regular season before shifting to another level in the playoffs, scoring the first 42 points against Russellville in a domating 42-20 conquest. The Russellville rout sent Marion to Benton for the quarterfinals and the Pats dominated the second half to pull away for a 59-37 win that doubled as Marion's first victory over a top-ranked team in school history. El Dorado eliminated Marion in the state semifinals just eight days before the Wildcats claimed their 10th state title in school history. When the smoke cleared, Marion's on-field record was 8-5, which marked the second-most victories in one season in school history, culminating with the third semifinal appearance ever, and the second in a row. Marion and Greenwood are the only teams to advance to the last two Class 6A semifinals. Marion's five 2021 losses came to four-time defending Class 7A state champion Bryant, eventual Class 4A state champion Joe T. Robinson, a pair of defeats at El Dorado, and a road loss at Sylvan Hills. “We battled some inconsistency early on last year, which is not totally out of the realm of possibility with a new coach, and especially with Covid lingering,” said Clark. “Finding our consistency and our identity as the season went on was our challenge. We ran off some really good wins down the stretch and were playing our best ball in the playoffs.” Clark's challenge now calls for building on the standard set the past two years. “There's a ton of excitement around the program right now,” said Clark. “This is a very important year for the program to establish ourselves inside our building, but as well as statewide. I think a lot of people, maybe rightfully so, are asking themselves if Marion is for real. It'll ultimately come down to how we play, but there is a ton of excitement and anticipation with us right now, and that makes it fun.” Awaiting the Patriots this fall is a new-look 10-team 6A East featuring returning league foes Searcy, West Memphis, Sheridan, and Sylvan Hills, as well as new conference rivals El Dorado, Jacksonville, Greene County Tech, Benton, and Little Rock Catholic. The top six teams from the 6A East will advance to the playoffs. Marion has made the playoffs in 17 consecutive seasons. Defending 6A champion El Dorado kicks off the most intriguing home schedule in Marion history when the Wildcats invade Premier Bank Stadium on September 9. Marion celebrates Homecoming on September 16 when Jacksonville comes calling, and Benton caps the first half of the schedule when the Panthers visit on September 30. Marion hosts West Memphis, as well as the State Farm Hometown Showdown, on October 14. Senior Night will be celebrated on October 28 against Sylvan Hills. Marion's road schedule includes trips to Wynne (August 26), Greene County Tech (September 23), Searcy (October 7), Sheridan (October 21), and LR Catholic (November 4). Every regular-season and playoff football game, aside from a potential state final, will be streamed live on and on the Marion Patriots Activities Network mobile app. OFFENSE Quarterback Ashton Gray produced one of the better off-seasons of any Marion football player. Gray appeared in five varsity games in 2021, starting and guiding the Pats to victories against Pine Bluff and Sheridan. The junior completed 62 percent of his passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 118 yards and another score. “His work ethic is excellent,” said Clark. “He leads in the weight room, during practice, and everything else. He's become a big-time leader for us. He really turned some heads this summer at 7-on-7s and team camps.” Sophomore Nathan Miller and freshman Zayden Walker develop as the backup QBs. The athletic Miller shifted during the off-season from the offensive line, while Walker will lead the freshman team on Thursday nights and dress and travel with the varsity on Fridays. Look for sophomore tailback Jalen Smith to absorb around 15 carries per game this fall. Smith paced the 4-4 junior Patriots a season ago in rushing before promoting to the varsity in October and rushing for 70 yards, including an impressive 62-yard TD jaunt in the playoffs against Russellville. “He's ready to take over back there,” said the coach. “He's a talented, special kid. He could have one of the better careers in Marion history.” Junior Jamar Foster paced the 3-2 junior varsity in rushing a season ago and his twin brother, Jordan, ran well in the off-season. Sophomore Kenny Brown assists in the backfield. Receiver Donnie Cheers doubles as Marion's only returning all-conference player. The senior three-sport stud “will garner a ton of attention this year because he's the best receiver in the state,” said Clark. “If you don't believe that then you're just not paying attention. He was great last year, and he's only gotten better with route-running. He's physical and competitive as heck.” Cheers paced the Pats last fall in receptions (41), receiving yards (948), and TD receptions (11). Sophomore Mitrell Lewis earned a starting role at Z with an impressive off-season. Lewis, who is also a standout basketball player, paced the junior high last year in TD receptions. Junior Matthew Kearney started most games in 2021 at receiver, snagging 15 passes for 128 yards and “blocking his butt off,” said Clark. “We want to see him expand his role a little bit. He can be more prominent and versatile.” Kearney likely returns punts. Sophomore Cameron Garrett profiles as an outside receiver or tight end depending on the matchup. Junior Timarion “Tubby” Smith impressed coaches during the off-season. Senior Willie Sampley and sophomores Carson Catt and Christian Young develop at receiver. Marion likely will not start any seniors this season in the offensive line, and only one starter returns. “We are a work in progress right now up front,” said Clark. “We may not have the full answer for a couple of weeks.” Junior Carter Benton started every game last fall at right tackle and produced an industrious off-season. Flexible sophomore Carius Curne emerged during fall camp at left tackle. Sophomore Charlie Cantrell impressed coaches last season after promoting to the varsity following the junior high season. Junior Johnny Miller “has come a long way in a short amount of time,” said the coach. Juniors Jermaine Davis, Akeelo Allen, Austin Watson and sophomore Taylin Rucker compete up front. Senior soccer player Ben Cherry likely handles extra points, shorter field goals, and kickoffs. DEFENSE The defensive line is “an important part of what we do,” said Clark. “We are looking for some depth right now, but the top end guys are legit.” Senior Jerrimiah Nichols started about half the games last fall at end, racking up 45 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and he tied for the team lead with seven sacks. “Jerrimiah does a little bit of everything, and he's good at all of them,” said the coach. “I've coached more than a decade now and have never coached anyone who plays harder than him.” Senior Antanius Tiggs missed five games last season, but still managed to log 27 tackles, six TFL, and three sacks. Look for Tiggs to play end and noseguard, depending on the matchup. “We need a big year from Tiggs, and he's more than capable,” said the coach. Senior Garrett Dickerson started three games last season on the offensive line, but he dazzled coaches during the off-season after shifting to defense. Junior Cam Brown helps at end and nose. Senior Thomas Taylor and sophomores Carter Doss and Elijah Taylor rotate up front. Junior Javon Griffin played defensive line last season at Wynne, but shifted to mike linebacker upon transferring to Marion. Junior Victor Turner chases the ball with an active motor. “He's a little smaller, but he'll tackle anybody,” said Clark. Junior linebacker Dewayne “D.J.” Williams rotated heavily last fall at 'backer, icing the Searcy game with a fourth-quarter interception. Senior Timothy Dukes and sophomores DeAngelo Foreman and Emmanuel Key compete at linebacker. Senior Carter Waldo likely starts his fourth varsity season on defense when he opens 2022 as the team's star linebacker (hybrid linebacker/safety). Waldo ranked second a season ago on Marion's tackle chart with 67 stops. “He's played a ton of football here, and we're all excited to see him take that next step this year,” said the coach. Waldo impressed in the spring when he competed for the track team. Sophomore Jaron Davis rotates at star 'backer. Senior Jakobe Smith started nine games a season ago at cornerback and “he's taken a big step this off-season to take more ownership and improve his game,” said the coach. “He's always been a great kid from a great family, but he's positioned himself now as a key guy in our locker room.” Smith tackled ball-carriers 28 times last year. Senior Tucker Brown and junior Arviance Leflore compete for the other cornerback slot, and a starter may not be named until August 18, when Marion scrimmages Maumelle. “We feel great about both of them,” said Clark. “They're good players, good kids, and whoever wins that spot will play well.” Sophomore Kendrick Cauley rotates at corner and starts on special teams. Juniors Martavian Banks and Amari Lee combined to start 13 games a season ago at safety, where each likely start in 2022. “They're our on-field quarterbacks,” said the coach. “I haven't coached many smarter football players than Martavian and Amari. They always know what's going on. They're vocal kids, great young men, and leaders. We are thrilled to have them back there.” Banks logged 45 tackles last year, while Lee stacked 17 stops and intercepted passes against Jonesboro and Russellville. Junior Kendal Brister played safety this summer and “was a big plus for us,” said Clark. “We didn't miss a beat when he was out there.” Sophomore Brian Glaspie works at safety.