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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The 2024 3A-1 Non-Conference Schedules Are Packed With Serious Showcase Showdowns

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With all of the 2023-24 sports now completed across the state, it’s time to look ahead to the summer break. That is unless you’re a football fan, then you’re breaking down the upcoming 2024 season schedules. The conference part of the schedules usually sits as a same ol’ same ol’ situation, but the spicy part begins right at the top of the lists with the non-conference games. These non-conference games stack up with rivalries, dream games, and games that may indicate how the season might go. For the southern programs of the 3A-1, the non-conference games for some teams might as well be a State Playoff game as they load up with opponents from the larger 4A conference while others throw in a mixed bag of 2A, 3A, and 4A schools to build up momentum leading into the regular season. A few teams have even sprinkled in a little bit of out-of-state spices to give their no-conference schedule a bit of a kick.

Booneville tends to have one of the highest-rated non-conference schedules in the entire 3A each and every year. Rarely do you see them take on another 3A team and 2A programs aren’t even on their radar. Instead, the Bearcats face off against teams that are year-in and year-out Playoff contenders out of the 4A. The defending 3A State Champions 2024 non-conference resume will be just a hair different than previous years though as they will take on the Poteau Pirates (Oklahoma), Ozark Hillbillies (4A), and the Paris Eagles (3A). The Poteau game should be a slobber knocker as Pirates is a perineal powerhouse in eastern Oklahoma. Last season, the Pirates completed a 12-1 overall record and went 7-0 in conference. Although the Bearcats face a pair of Pirates each year in the 3A-1 conference (Cedarville and Greenland), Poteau’s ship will likely be harder to capsize for the Bearcats. Next up, Booneville will play in one of the oldest rivalry games in the state against the 4A-Ozark Hillbillies. Even though Booneville has won seven of the last eight matchups with Ozark, the game never fails to give fans their money’s worth. Last on the Bearcats non-conference lineup is the Paris Eagles from the 3A-4. Paris has had a rough go the past couple of years but is slowly starting to trend back upward. The Bearcats haven’t faced Paris since Booneville moved to the 3A-1 in 2022, but the Eagles haven’t forgotten their narrow 28-20 loss to Booneville in 2020 and will likely put up a decent fight.

Booneville versus Mansfield, 2023.
Photo courtesy of Joey Bolin

A lot of teams have shuffled in and out of the 3A-1 over the years, but the staple team has always been the Charleston Tigers. Like Booneville, Charleston isn’t scared to square off against the “big boys” from the 4A. In fact, they most likely enjoy it. Even though the Tigers fell in all three of their non-conference 4A games against Elkins, Ozark, and Nashville last year, Charleston did not refrain from setting up another high-end non-conference slate for 2024. Charleston will hit the road to face the Pottsville Apaches and Ozark Hillbillies from the 4A conference and then welcome the Heavener Wolves from Oklahoma to Tiger Stadium. The past two meetings between Charleston and Pottsville ended in a 35-14 and 21-14 victory for the Tigers. While Charleston has had the upper hand on the scoreboard, the Apaches will still have to be taken seriously, especially on Pottsville’s home turf. Next up will be the one, the only, the Franklin County Feud. The Tigers hold a 7-3 record against the Hillbillies over the past decade outscoring Ozark 246-218 over that period. But Charleston’s 28-7 loss to Ozark last season is a reminder that in this rivalry, no, in this FEUD anything is possible. The final non-conference game slated for Charleston is a head-scratcher as the Tigers host the Heavener Oklahoma Wolves. The Wolves held a 7-4 record last season allowing 277 points to their opponents while putting up 312 points on the scoreboard. If you compare that to Charleston’s 7-6 record in 2023 allowing 271 points and scoring 351, you’ll quickly notice that this will be a “don’t want to miss” game.

Charleston versus Barton, 2023.
Photo courtesy of Jim Best

The Mansfield Tigers had a record-setting run in 2023 by making the State Semifinals for the first time in school history, setting a school record by scoring 489 points on the year, and a school record for most wins in a season with 11 total games won. And all of that was done with just five seniors on the roster and first-year head coach, Whit Overton, who was awarded the 3A Coach of the Year plaque. But was all that just a mere fluke? Overton and the Tigers don’t think so and they set up a non-conference schedule to try and prove that their 2023 season wasn’t a one-and-done. Mansfield will travel to play the Bismarck Lions (3A), host the Battle of Scott County against Waldron (4A), and then will load the bus and head to Lamar to take on the Warriors. The Tigers game against the Bismarck Lions will be the first high school football game played in the entire state and is already being set up as a serious small-town showdown. Bismarck rolled through an impressive 10-4 record last season and ate the 3A-1s lunch in the State Playoffs by breezing past Hackett 42-13 and stunning Charleston in Charleston with a 35-27 victory. Like Mansfield, the Lions have been pegged as a mid-card program in the 3A and are eager to prove their worth. Then there’s Mansfield versus Waldron aka the Battle of Scott County. The Tigers will welcome the Bulldogs to The Jungle this year after trouncing Waldron 48-6 last season. As with any old-school rivalry, this one will be a bad-blooded battle no matter the final score. Mansfield’s last non-conference game scheduled will be a trip to Lamar to take on the Warriors from the 4A-4. The last time the Tigers played Lamar was in 2019 before the Warriors moved up into the 4A. As an annual 4A Playoff contender, Lamar will be the true test of what Mansfield might be able to do against the 3A powerhouses they’ll face later in the year.  

Mansfield versus Waldron, 2023
Photo courtesy of Joey Bolin

Hackett will be going into the 2024 season under second-year coach, Mason Wann. Wann’s inaugural season wasn’t too shabby as the Hornets finished 4th in the 3A-1 and made it to the State Playoffs before falling to Bismarck. Normally, one would expect the Hornets to cross over into Oklahoma territory to play Panama and Pocola for non-conference play, but that’s not the case this season. Instead, Hackett will take additional steps towards building their program by facing the Danville Little Johns (3A), making a trip up to Gentry (4A) to take on the Pioneers, and will then close out against Mountainburg Dragons (2A). While playing Mountainburg and Danville may take some fans back to the Hornets 2A days before they moved into the 3A-1 in 2020, the game versus Gentry is the one to circle on the calendar. Both the Hornets and Pioneers will be looking to reestablish themselves as serious contenders in their respective conferences and this game could be what pushes one or the other over that hump. A sweep of their non-conference schedule would definitely put the Hornets in the talks of being a viable threat in the 3A-1 this season.

Hackett versus Mansfield, 2023.
Photo courtesy of Jeannie Keomoungkhoune

The Golden Arrows of Lavaca have owned their non-conference schedule for the past two seasons which has led to some pretty impressive starts in conference play. In fact, Lavaca has done so well in out-of-conference play over the past two years that they swept opponents with a combined score of 252-62. Those games were against two 2A teams and a small 3A program though and wound up creating what some might call a false sense of security as they enter 3A-1 conference play. This season the Golden Arrows will step onto the field with a new head coach and a new non-conference schedule. In his first move as Lavaca’s new head coach, coach Nick Stovall beefed up the Golden Arrows early game slate by filling in the slots with the Dover Pirates (4A), Paris Eagles (3A), and the Roland Rangers out of Oklahoma as Lavaca’s non-conference schedule. The Golden Arrows will hit the road to take on Dover and Roland but will face Paris at home. The Lavaca versus Paris game is likely to be the most evenly matched nonconference game for the Golden Arrows, but don’t think that it’s the only game Lavaca can win. Lavaca can take down Dover and Roland and gain road trip acknowledgment along the way. While this kind of upgrade in competition may not allow Lavaca to blow up the scoreboard as much as they have in previous years, it will definitely allow them to get a slight feel for what they will face in conference play.

Lavaca versus Mansfield, 2023.
Photo courtesy of Jeannie Keomoungkhoune

Looking through the non-conference schedules of the programs in the southern part of the 3A-1, there’s a plethora of solid games in the lineup. Booneville versus Poteau has that marquee heavyweight matchup feel to it. The Charleston Tigers taking on Heavener will likely set an attendance record for Tiger Stadium as not only is the game a big one, but Booneville, Lavaca, and Mansfield all have bye weeks that Friday and will likely be in the stands for an early season scouting session. A coin flip can be made as to which of Mansfield’s games has the most importance, but since their game versus Bismarck is the first game in the entire state, that one sticks out the most. For Hackett and Lavaca, it’s all about showing what they have built on from last season’s highs and lows. Some could pick the Hornets against Gentry and Lavaca versus Paris to set as decent indicators of the upcoming season too. It doesn’t matter which non-conference games you attend for whichever 3A-1 school you cheer for; it is highly unlikely that you’ll leave the early-season Friday night lights disappointed.

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