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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Mansfield’s Historic Season Continues Friday in State Semifinals at Prescott

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MANSFIELD- In perhaps the best “feel good” story this year in Arkansas high school football, the Mansfield Tigers have advanced to the Class 3A state semifinals of the 2023 state playoffs. Mansfield travels to Prescott on Friday to take on the Curly Wolves for the right to advance to this year’s state championship game in Little Rock at War Memorial Stadium.

Mansfield advanced to the semis by defeating Centerpoint, Hoxie, and Salem. The Tigers, along with Booneville from the 3A-1 conference are still alive and competing for state championships. Wins by both schools on Friday will set up for the second consecutive year a state final between two 3A-1 schools. Booneville will play Glen Rose on Friday in their semifinal match-up.

It has been a year of change in historic proportions for the Mansfield football program. In late June of this year, the district made a coaching change and hired former Mansfield High School graduate and then Booneville Junior High head football coach, Whit Overton. Overton had to move quickly in July to install both his systems and program culture before the Tigers’ first game that would take place approximately seven weeks later in August.

Mansfield would go on to win eight games in the regular season against just two losses. In conference play, the Tigers would go 5-2 with their only losses being to Booneville and Charleston. The Tigers’ 5-2 conference mark would be good enough for a three seed from the conference heading into the state playoffs.

In the first round of the state playoffs, Mansfield played host to the Centerpoint Knights. Mansfield defeated the Knights by the score of 57-22 to advance to the second round. The win would send the Tigers northeast by more than four hours to play at Hoxie.

In a thriller, the Tigers held the Mustangs on a fourth and goal late in the game to defeat Hoxie 14-13. The Mustangs elected to go for the fourth and goal instead of kicking a field goal, likely due to Mansfield having had blocked a Hoxie point-after-touchdown kick earlier in the game. It was a huge win for the program, and the win in northeast Arkansas sent the Tigers to the state quarterfinals.

For the second consecutive week, the Tigers boarded charter buses, thanks to the donations from the Mansfield community, and made the long trip to north Arkansas to play the Salem Greyhounds. And in true Tiger fashion, Mansfield won another thriller on the strength of their defense that once again stood strong late in the game. Mansfield defeated Salem 26-22 and now finds themselves one game away from playing in Little Rock for a state championship.

To get to Little Rock, the Tigers will face a big road challenge once again, this time against the Prescott Curly Wolves. Prescott is another Arkansas program that is loaded with speed and talent, and it will take an all-out effort for the Tigers to win on the road. But that is OK; the “experts” have not picked Mansfield to win since their first-round victory, and the Tigers have proven them wrong for the past two weeks, playing on the road, and a long way from home. In fact, the state media has not shown a lot of love to Mansfield during their playoff run, and I am sure that is not lost as motivation to the Tigers.

Prescott finished the regular season with a 9-1 overall record and were undefeated at 5-0 in their conference. In the first round of the state playoffs, the Curly Wolves defeated Palestine-Wheatley by the score of 42-0. In the second round, Prescott won a nail-biter, defeating Fordyce, 7-6. In last week’s quarterfinal, Prescott defeated Bismarck by the score of 42-13. The Bismarck defeat sets up the state semifinal with Mansfield at 7 p.m. in Prescott.

Tigers’ coach Whit Overton was good enough to take time from his busy week of preparation to visit with us on the phone in advance of his team’s trip to Prescott. The Tigers’ coach could not express enough how proud he is of his players, and I am sure that everyone connected to the program shares his feelings.

We asked Coach Overton to share with our readers how things are going for him and the team during their historic state playoff run. Coach began by saying, “It took a little while (speaking of the transition with the team after he was hired in June) to get clicking. We had those two losses in the middle of the season, and we had an opportunity to “let go of the rope”, but they (the players) didn’t, and we got better from those losses. We learned a lot about ourselves, our team, and I think that was key to us making this playoff run. Nobody “let go of the rope”, and everybody stayed locked in and kept fighting. And that is why we are where we are now.”

With respect to what has changed in the Mansfield football program, Coach Overton shared, “I know these kids have bought in and have worked hard every day, and we (coaches) have preached “team” over “individual”, and a lot of kids were asked to change positions; maybe running back to lineman, to things like that and the kids have just said that they were going to do whatever they had to do win. They were not worried about individual credit or anything like that.”

One aspect of the Tigers this year that has been apparent to this observer is the increased physicality of the team. In an earlier game this season at Mansfield, it was apparent that the Tigers are a physical ball club on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The Tigers running backs run hard and with the intent of not being denied. I asked Coach about his emphasis on being physical at the point of attack on offense, as well as on defense. Coach Overton explained, “We’re careful now (with contact in practice) more than we were in the season. We had physical practices during the season. You can’t play physical without being physical in practice. We started that the first day we could put on the pads, and we started holding the kids accountable for being physical in practice. We preached “going hard on every play”, and the kids really bought into it. It has been a big part of what we do.”

As Coach Overton and I visited, I asked him about the players he took over this year as head coach. Coach said, “I just think they want to be winners. They are willing to sacrifice their time and their efforts to win. One of those things that has kind of changed is that we are going to work hard. I’m conscious of their time, as well. In practice, we don’t waste any time. We don’t have long, drawn-out, three-hour practices. We get everything done in two hours and that includes meetings and everything. So, these kids have really shown that they watch film, they study their scout pages, and it is, just like everything else, you (the coach) have to hold them accountable. But this group has a lot of good leaders (players). We don’t have a lot of seniors, but we have a lot of good leaders. They hold each other accountable, and the younger kids see that and want to play for those older guys, as well. We have t-shirts that our kids wear during pregame warmup that say, “Fight until your last breath”, and that is just what our kids have done all season.”

That is more than an expression on a t-shirt, it is a core principle of the Mansfield football culture. Coach explained, “It doesn’t matter what is going on around us, we are going to fight on every play. If we are up 45 points or down 45, we are going to keep playing hard.”

To go from where the program has been historically where a good year was to either make the playoffs, or perhaps win a state playoff game, to where they are now of being in the state semifinals as one of four teams left playing for a state championship, is amazing.

When Coach Overton took over the program in late June, the Tigers were scheduled to play their first game on August 25. The dramatic turnaround for this program that has been less than six months in the making is quite a feat. In fact, Coach Overton and his staff have not yet had the opportunity to get the players into his offseason weight and conditioning program. So, it is scary to think how good this team could be in 2024.

Turning the page to Prescott on Friday, I asked Coach what concerned him the most about the Curly Wolves. Coach shared, “Well, their tradition, athleticism, and they have won every state track meet since 2016. They have tons of speed; they are big and physical, and we are going to have to play a really good game to have a chance. We are going to have to be physical and run the football, and we are going to have to make some big plays on defense…create turnovers, get stops, and things like that. They (Prescott) have so much speed that it is just incredible how fast they are.”

Kickoff in Prescott is set for 7 p.m. on Friday, and Mansfield fans, along with their team, will make the drive that is just short of three hours to the southeast Arkansas community to do battle with the Curly Wolves. The WeatherBug forecast for Prescott on Friday is predicting a high temperature that day of 62 degrees and a low of 42. There is a 40% chance of storms. Perhaps a wet field could be to the advantage of the power rushing attack of Mansfield….who knows? But fans should be prepared for rain on Friday night.

RNN Sports would like to thank Tigers head football coach Whit Overton for taking time to visit with us and for contributing to this story. And on behalf of all of us at RNN Sports, we congratulate the Mansfield Tigers on a historic season that we believe is not yet finished!

Good luck Friday night and GO TIGERS!

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Jim Best
Jim Best
Jim Best is a man of many talents. His storied career in Arkansas education led him to a new passion, and hidden gifts in sports journalism.
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