Despite only two regular-season victories, Marion is in the Class 6A semifinals for the first time since 2006.
The Patriots (4-6) earned their spot in Class 6A's final four with a 55-34 victory over Van Buren on Friday night at Patriot Stadium in Marion.
Marion led 17-0 at the end of the first quarter and 38-14 at halftime. It was the Patriots' first playoff victory on the field since 2015 when it won a first-round game at Lake Hamilton.
Coach Keith Houston said it was important for the Patriots to play well early against the Pointers, the No. 7 seed from the 6A-West.
"I challenged our kids," Houston said. "I told them to start out fast. I challenged our offensive line. Our O-line did a good job of holding their blocks. The backs ran hard all night."
Senior running back Brandon Mackey led the Patriots, rushing for a career-high 348 yards and 4 touchdowns on 19 carries. He also had a receiving touchdown.
"Brandon did well," Houston said. "He's a kid who's a big play waiting to happen. He gave us momentum. He ran the ball well and caught the ball well."
Senior quarterback Daedrick Cail completed 6 of 11 passes for 142 yards and 2 touchdowns, and also had a rushing touchdown.
Senior wide receiver Tajiri Ellis caught 4 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown for the Patriots.
Houston credited his players and assistant coaches for the victory.
"They've trusted the process," Houston said. "Without the kids and assistant coaches, we wouldn't be where we're at. They've done a good job."
Marion was the No. 6 seed from the 6A-East Conference entering the playoffs. The Patriots were able to advance to Friday's quarterfinals after Benton forfeited their spot in the playoffs Nov. 12 because of its covid-19 situation, which included one positive test and 32 other players having to quarantine.
Houston admitted that the unexpected week off benefited the Patriots.
"It gave us a boost of momentum," Houston said. "Our kids knew we were going to get a home game [after Van Buren defeated Jonesboro in the first round]. They were able to play well in front of the home crowd.
"It was really big. We're trying to rewrite the history here at Marion."
Marion travels to 6A-West Conference champion Greenwood on Friday for the semifinals. The Patriots are looking to reach their first state championship game in school history.
Houston has confidence in the Patriots, who are the lowest seed left in the Class 6A playoffs.
"They're going to be a really good test," Houston said of Greenwood. "We have to limit our mistakes. We have to match their intensity.
"The tradition is there in Greenwood. We look at them and that's where we want to be."
Minutes after Pulaski Academy defeated Farmington 51-21 on Friday night in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs, Coach Kevin Kelley's thoughts shifted toward Magnolia and the quarterfinals.
Magnolia was in the process of defeating Greenbrier 76-55. That game was still in the fourth quarter with Magnolia leading 69-55 when Kelley began thinking about the Panthers.
It was a year ago when Magnolia traveled to Pulaski Academy for a first-round game under first-year Coach Mark King and a new Flexbone offensive scheme. Pulaski Academy won last year's matchup 63-34, which was Kelley's 200th victory as a head coach.
But this season, Magnolia has won eight games, including a 52-49 victory at 2019 5A-Central champion Little Rock Christian on Sept. 11.
The Panthers (8-2) from the 5A-South Conference have Kelley's attention, especially after they piled up 539 yards of offense against Greenbrier.
"That's a tough matchup," Kelley said. "When you see it [the option] once a year, that's tough. We haven't seen it this year. They make you play disciplined football. Their one-on-one guys are pretty good. They played us good last year.
"They know how to run that offense in their second year. I went to college with Coach King [at Henderson State University]. He's a great football coach.
"This is a tremendous matchup. I think Magnolia is one of the top four or five teams in the state."
For the first time since the state went to six classes in 2006, the Class 7A semifinals will feature four 7A-Central Conference teams.
Two-time defending Class 7A state champion Bryant will host Conway, while North Little Rock takes on Cabot on Friday night.
Cabot (8-3) upset 7A-West Conference champion Bentonville 38-34. The Panthers overcame a 34-17 deficit with 7:49 left in the third quarter.
Senior quarterback Tyler Gee completed 28 of 42 passes for 409 yards with 3 touchdowns and an interception to lead Cabot, the No. 4 seed from the 7A-Central.
Bryant (11-0) took care of Springdale Har-Ber 48-22 behind senior quarterback Austin Ledbetter's five touchdown passes.
Senior quarterback Ben Weese threw three touchdown passes to lead Conway (8-3) past Little Rock Central 49-20.
North Little Rock (10-1) is in the state semifinals for the fifth consecutive season after defeating Little Rock Catholic 34-7 thanks to senior quarterback Kareame Cotton's two touchdowns.
The Class 7A state championship game will feature two teams from the 7A-Central Conference for the third consecutive season. Bryant won the 2018 and 2019 title games against North Little Rock.
Two of Class 2A's three undefeated teams will play each other Friday night in the quarterfinals.
Bigelow (12-0), the 2A-4 Conference champion, will travel to 2A-6 Conference No. 1 seed Des Arc (11-0) in a matchup featuring teams with a combined 23-0 record.
Des Arc defeated Mount Ida 40-22 in the second round, as sophomore running back Jack Kearby had three rushing touchdowns.
Junior Brayden Jones was one of four players to score a touchdown for Bigelow in its 43-8 victory over Hampton. Jones scored three rushing touchdowns, while juniors Hunter Alexander and Keithlin Brown, and sophomore Chance Page each reached the end zone once.
The Bigelow-Des Arc winner will face Junction City or Poyen in the semifinals Dec. 4.