There are 41 football programs from six conferences in the Arkansas 3A division. Each and every one of those teams has the ultimate goal of becoming the Arkansas State Champions. Of course, some programs are built better for achieving that goal while others merely dream. You have to have a tenured head coach, a history of success, a heavily talented roster with a lot of seniors, and a town that lives and breathes football to back you up. Then again, there’s the 2023 Mansfield Tigers who had none of that. A team with a first-year head coach, no history of consistent success, a small roster with just five seniors, and a town that is used to seeing the team to merely make the Playoffs as a successful season. So when Mansfield made the State Playoffs, knocked off a 3Seed and two undefeated 1Seeds to make it to the State Semifinals, folks in Tiger Town and the entire state were shocked. But could the Tigers travel to Prescott and turn their third straight game versus a number one team into another upset?
The Curley Wolves of Prescott were pegged as a 3A favorite in preseason polls and the 3A-5 Champions had lived up to the hype heading into their SemiFinal matchup with the Tigers. With Prescott’s deep roster and pure athletes as far as the eye can see, Mansfield knew they faced a tall task. But even though they were outsized and outnumbered, there wasn’t a look of pregame defeat on any of Mansfield’s five seniors’ faces as they went out for the coin toss. After the coin was flipped, Prescott elected to send out their high-end offense first to try and get a head start on the underdog Tigers. Prescott’s plan was executed flawlessly as they quickly drove 38 yards on 7 plays to take an early 7-0 lead over the Tigers in the first quarter. Once Mansfield got the ball for their first drive of the game, Prescott pinned their ears back and came after the small Tigers dropping Mansfield for negative yardage on first and second downs. Facing a third and long, Mansfield caught the Curley Wolves in a snare with a quick pitch to Daniel Burton who then passed the ball to a wide-open Peyton Martin for a first down. The huge play was a small spark for the Tigers, but still a far cry from a fiery victory. Although both teams’ offenses were able to gain chunks of yards off and on, it was the defenses that ruled the remainder of the first quarter. Mansfield was again doing the impossible by hanging with another premier 3A team as the opening quarter ended with the Tigers down to Prescott 7-0.
Mansfield started the second quarter with the ball in their possession and leaned heavily on their bread-and-butter rushing attack to try and wear down Prescott’s massive defensive linemen. Running backs Tyler Turnipseed and Andrew Burton lowered their pads and took big hits to gain yardage on each handoff which led Mansfield to a fourth an inches at the goal line. This is where the Tigers have thrived in past games with a Jeremy Strozier quarterback sneak. Prescott stacked up their entire defense in the box to stuff the smaller Tigers scoring attempt, but Mansfield pulled the wool over the Curley Wolves’ eyes. Instead of pushing his way in, Strozier handed the ball to Daniel Burton on an end-around play for a Tiger touchdown. Ethan Martin added on the extra point kick tying the game up at 7-7 with the top ranked Curley Wolves. Mansfield’s offense was able to put up points to keep the Tigers in the game, but stopping Prescott’s powerful offense was a task of its own. The Tigers defense gave up a few big plays to the Curley Wolves on the next possession yet stood strong forcing Prescott to again punt. Unfortunately for Mansfield, the punt set the Tigers offense back at the one-yard line with 99 yards and a hungry pack of wolves ahead of them. Impressive runs by Tyler Turnipseed, Daniel Burton, and Jeremy Strozier helped dig the Tigers out to the 19-yard line, but that was as far as Mansfield’s offensive gas tank could make with setting up a punting situation. With Prescott in possession of the ball again and Mansfield showing signs of exhaustion, the Curley Wolves pounced on another scoring opportunity by driving 66 yards on seven plays to go up 14-7 before halftime. With a one score game, Mansfield had fans on both sides of the field wondering if they could really take down another 1Seed.
The Tigers received the second half kickoff and looked to be refreshed after the halftime break. Jeremy Strozier and Daniel Burton caught Prescott’s defense off guard with a smooth option play which Burton gained 25 yards on giving the Tigers an early boost. Andrew Burton and Tyler Turnipseed added a couple of good runs to the drive, but things began to stall for the Tigers offense as they faced a fourth down with two yards to go. The Tigers didn’t make it to the State Semifinals to just play punt the ball, so Mansfield rolled the dice and decided to go for it. The play selection was perfect, and the defense was right where the Tigers wanted them, but a miscommunication resulted in a missed pitch. The loose ball was scooped up by Prescott and taken all the way back for a turnover touchdown. Although Mansfield continued to fight on both sides of the ball, the Tigers were heavily outnumbered as Prescott continued to roll in fresh bodies onto the field. The Curley Wolves continued to lean on the wore out Tigers as Mansfield gave up two more scores to Prescott in the second half to end the game with a final score of 28-7.
No matter how you shake it, a loss is a loss. The bottom line is, Prescott had the numbers and the talent to exceed the Tigers overall limits. But for a team of 26 total players, merely five seniors, and a first-year head coach to lead them, Mansfield cannot see their 2023 season as a disappointment. The Tigers finished the season with a 5-2 conference record and 11-3 overall record. One of their conference losses was to the 2022 defending 3A Champions Charleston Tigers in a 14-7 thriller while the other was to the Booneville Bearcats who were the 3A State Runner-Ups in 2022. Mansfield’s only non-conference loss was to Prescott in the 3A-State Semifinals game. Coincidently, Booneville and Prescott will be the two teams who will play for the 2023 3A State Championship. Mansfield shocked two 1Seeded teams that were undefeated up to that point in the Playoffs. The Tigers set Mansfield football school records in the categories of most wins in a season (11), most points scored in a season (489), and the first team in school history to make the State Semifinals along the way. The 2023 Tigers made their mark in Mansfield and across the state as the ultimate underdogs all season with marquee games and thrilling finishes. With such a young team and coaching staff pulling off the unthinkable feat in 2023, the future expectations of Mansfield football is on the rise.