Softball field

No matter where you go around the Marion School District, you can't help but notice exciting things going on around campus.

Three innovative magnet schools, a newly opened 7th Grade Academy, and updated facilities district-wide are just a few of the many things that play pivotal roles in preparing Marion graduates for success both in school and the world beyond.

This theme continues into athletics, where Marion's programs excel at the highest level, year after year.

That's an idea that seemed almost impossible less than a decade ago.

Sure, Marion has earned 16 conference titles, played for 11 state championships, and won six state crowns since 2013. And sure, Marion nabbed statewide attention in 2022 when it became the first school in Arkansas in eight years -- and the only school since -- to reach the state semifinals or better in five different sports (volleyball, football, boys and girls basketball, and baseball).

So some might think that the athletic programs have always been one of the top performers in the state. But that would not be the case.

But how has Marion shaken its status as a perennial also-ran to become one of the big dogs in its classification every year? And how far have the programs come in such a short amount of time?


Like many programs in the state of Arkansas, the Marion athletic programs ebbed and flowed for many years in the school’s infancy.

Patriot football produced more down seasons than good ones from the 1960s through the mid-2000s. The 1970 Patriots broke through with an 8-2 record, and Bill Cook’s 1989 Patriots finished 9-3, but those were the outliers, rather than the standard.

The Marion gridders qualified for the 1992 Class AAAA playoffs, and even led West champion Alma 14-0 in the half before the Airedales scored the game’s final 28 points in succession.

Nobody knew it at the time, but it would take the Patriots 13 years, and three coaching changes before returning to the postseason.

Following that 1992 playoff run, Marion endued two one-win seasons and a pair of two-win campaigns before returning to the playoffs in 2005.

Basketball was the same story. A particularly gifted group of athletes would come along and power the Patriot boys or girls into the playoffs once in a blue moon, but as far as being a perennial contender for conference and state titles? Not so much.

“As far as athletics, it seems like Marion has grown from a mid-tier school in the state to a legitimate contender in just about every sport,” said 2014 Marion graduate Tyler Bennett, who now works as a Coordinator for Media Relations at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. “In some ways it seemed like the Patriots were just happy to make the playoffs occasionally. But now it's a team that you want to avoid at all costs (in the state tournament).”

While Marion has certainly stamped itself as a contender across all sports these days, the crawl up the mountain was slow and steady, the polar opposite of the school’s swelling enrollment.


Marion established itself as one of the fastest-growing cities and school districts in Arkansas throughout the 1990s.

As recently as 1988, Marion High School was one of the smallest Class AAA schools in the state, but MHS bumped up to Class AAAA in time for the 1998-99 school year.

The bump did very little to help Marion athletics.

Prior to 1993, Marion had never played for a state championship in any sport.

That changed that March, when Coach Melvin Brown's Marion boys basketball team qualified for that season's state final. And though the Patriots lost a heartbreaker to Dumas inside Little Rock's Barton Coliseum, Marion was officially on the map after playing for the first state title in school history.

The growth did not slow as more people flocked to Marion, with the proximity to Memphis and the small-town feeling attracting many families to the area.

While most eyes were on the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Ga., that year may go down as the most significant in the history of Marion athletics as the school added softball that spring and volleyball that fall.

Those sports proved to be much more than competitive -- and in short order, to boot.

Patriot volleyball and softball quickly made names for themselves, each advancing to the state semifinals for the first time in 2000, and both qualified for the state final for the first time in 2006.

Patriot softball capped off the 2005-06 school year with a bang, earning the school's first-ever state championship with a 7-0 rout of league rival Nettleton in that spring's Class AAAA state final.

Marion's enrollment continued to swell over the next eight years, and Marion found itself in Class 6A, the second-largest classification in the state, beginning in the fall of 2006.

“That was an exciting time in this new frontier,” said 2010 Marion graduate Landon West. “Some of our teams found instant success in Class 6A, but some were not able to compete with their new, larger counterparts.”

Patriot volleyball was one of the sports that was able to find instant success, earning the 2006 6A East crown, and advancing to the program's first final before losing a heartbreaker to league rival Jonesboro in five sets.

Also that fall, Marion's football program earned a share of just the second conference title in school history before the '06 Patriots pushed through to the state semifinals for the first time ever.

“That whole year was kind of a dream season,” said 2005 Marion graduate Chuck Livingston. “We'd struggled the previous couple of football seasons, and it got better and better in Coach (Mark) Uhiren's first couple of seasons, but to win 17 games over two years (2005 and 2006), win a conference title, and make the semis really gave a lot of us the feeling that the football program had arrived as a bonafide contender. For the first time, our athletics programs were garnering some statewide attention in a positive way.”

Marion volleyball kept rapping on the door, returning to the final in 2009 before Lisa Beasley's crew kicked the door down in 2010 and 2011, winning and then repeating as Class 6A state champions during the best two-year run in program history. The Patriots earned their third state title in six seasons on Halloween day 2015, while also finishing as state runners-up in 2014 and 2016, to stamp the Patriots as one of the state's great volleyball dynasties.

But other sports struggled to adapt to their new surroundings. Football tapered off following the 2006 semifinal push. Boys and girls basketball plateaued out in the early 2010s, as did baseball and softball.

“Like anything else, you have cycles where you have some of the better athletes and some where those kids graduate,” said Livingston. “It just seemed like that's what was going on during that three- or four-year run.”


Marion's girls golf team capped a mesmerizing four-year run in October 2013 by winning the Class 6A state championship on their home course at Cypress View.

That year's crown was the second team title for Marion in four seasons, while senior all-state performer Brooke Alford also won a pair of individual state titles between 2010 and 2013.

Volleyball remained strong, qualifying for that season's semifinal, but football recorded its second straight 2-9 season as participation numbers dwindled as the Patriots broke fall camp.

In the winter of 2014, Marion’s boys and girls basketball programs both failed to win a state-tournament game for the first time in eight seasons.

The spring brought a slight uprising, as the softball team made the semifinals and the baseball team won three games over three days in Benton to make the state final for the first time ever.

Russellville topped Marion 2-0, and while the defeat still stings players, coaches, and fans to this day, Marion baseball's day was coming.

That season kicked off a prosperous run for softball as the Patriots made the first of three straight semifinals, but baseball won only three games in the 2016 season.

The spring of 2016 signaled the arrival of Coach Shunda Johnson's vastly improved girls basketball program.

In her fourth season at the helm, Johnson's Lady Patriots finished with a winning record, capped off by her team's first state tournament victory in the opening round of the bracket before losing a heartbreaker by one point in the state quarterfinals to the host school Russellville.

Less than 53 weeks later, Johnson's Lady Patriots earned the school's first conference tournament title, riding the momentum all the way to its first-ever appearance in the semifinals and state finals, where Marion outdueled Sheridan, 50-40, for the first state championship in girls hoops.

Girls title“That was a special group of players and coaches to be sure,” said Livingston, who covered Marion basketball from 2013-16 and again now as the school's communications specialist. “But what was exciting about it to me was that it didn't feel like a one-year deal. Coach Johnson's emphasis on player development and her vast knowledge of basketball strategy and scheme made it feel like there would be many more deep tournament runs to come.”

That feeling played out in spades when the Lady Pats repeated as conference tournament champs in 2018 and returned to the final four for the second straight season.

Johnson's teams built on the legacy of the 2017 state champions by making the semifinals three more times in 2021, 2022, and 2023, cementing its status as one of the state's top girls basketball programs.

The worm also quickly turned for the boys hoop program.

From 2012 until 2016, the Marion men did not win a single state tournament game. But that changed in the 2018-19 season.

Those Patriots started 6-3, but overwhelmed the competition once the calendar flipped to 2019. Marion won its last 19 games in succession, including 16 by double-digits, en route to the 2019 Class 5A state title.

Superlatives for the 2019 Patriots included the school's first boys hoops state title ever, the first conference title since 2005, and a consensus Top 20 national finish.

Marion boys hoops returned to the state semifinals in 2020, and played for the state title once again in 2022.

“That type of talent has always been in the Marion School District,” said West. “The success of the last seven or eight years has come from the wide range of investments by the district. Coaching and personnel decisions over the last decade has represented a shift that puts the students that Marion has first, whether an athlete or a student in any other extracurricular program. The coaching talent right now at Marion is second to none, and the results over the past decade confirm this.”

With boys and girls basketball properly rejuvenated, volleyball a perennial contender in league action and on a statewide basis, it was time to pump new life into the Patriot football program.

In 2018, Marion hired former Ole Miss football player Keith Houston, who guided the team to its best record in 12 years. Houston's first team finished 8-3, earned a conference runner-up finish, and toppled traditional powers Wynne, Pine Bluff, and Jonesboro in the same season for the first time ever.

The 2019 Patriots went 6-5, marking the first time that Marion had recorded consecutive winning seasons since 2010 and 2011.

Houston's third team embarked on Marion’s most prosperous playoff run in 14 seasons, topping Van Buren at home for the school's first playoff victory since 2015 to make the semifinals for just the second time ever. It took eventual state champion Greenwood to top the Pats.

Houston returned to Texas after the 2020 season wrapped up, and Marion tabbed Little Rock Christian defensive coordinator Lance Clark, widely regarded as one of the rising stars in Arkansas high school football, to lead the Patriot program.

Clark arrived in Marion June 2021 and he found a team that was picked almost universally to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Early on, Clark's Patriots looked the part. Marion opened 1-2 against a difficult non-conference slate before throttling the West Memphis Blue Devils on September 24 for the first victory over the south Crittenden County team in the history of the rivalry. (It wouldn’t be the last).

football winBut consistency waned as Marion alternated wins and losses over the next five weeks.

A homecoming victory over Pine Bluff gave Marion a shot in the arm, and a Senior Night conquest of 6A East champion Jonesboro reinforced that belief.

A first-round mercy-rule victory over Russellville extended the Marion winning streak to four games, but the Patriots went down to Benton for the state quarterfinals as heavy underdogs against that season's outright 6A West champions. A 24-all game at halftime turned into a Marion jam session in the third and fourth periods. The Patriots led 59-31 late in the fourth quarter before finishing with a 59-37 victory that doubled as Marion's first-ever victory over a No. 1-ranked team in program history, and the Pats were in the semifinals for the second straight year.

“I don't believe I'll ever forget that night at Benton,” said Livingston. “Our people were so happy, they were honestly overjoyed. They were loud all night. They really believed that we were going to win the game. The drive down there and the drive home were just an unbelievable amount of fun. One of my favorite games ever.”

Marion won seven games in 2022, including first-ever victories over El Dorado, and a repeat win over West Memphis.

The 2023 Patriots authored the best start in program history (8-1), finished as conference runners-up, and earned a first-round playoff bye and a home quarterfinal game for the first time since 2011. Marion twice took the lead in the fourth quarter against national football juggernaut Pulaski Academy, which has won eight state titles in the past 10 years, before the Bruins scored on the game's final play for a dramatic 27-26 victory.

Despite the heartbreaking defeat in the 2023 quarters, Marion’s seniors will go down as the winningest class in Patriot football history, averaging eight wins a season over their varsity careers, with an appearance in the state semifinals, and one voyage to the state quarterfinals.

As football averaged seven wins per season from 2018-2023, Patriot baseball enjoyed a similar trajectory over the same time period.

The Marion School District tabbed Pete Prater to lead its baseball program beginning in the fall of 2017, and Prater's impact was felt instantly. Prater, a Corning native and former MLB draft pick of the San Francisco Giants, guided Nettleton to the state finals twice in the early 2000s, and his 2018 Marion club won 18 times, including the school's first conference tournament title, capped by a dramatic extra-innings victory over regional rival Jonesboro for the crown.

Prater's Pats won 21 games or more every non-Covid 19-impacted season for the next three seasons, including 2022, a season that will live in infamy.

Nine seniors led off-season workouts and into the spring, and the 2022 Patriots capped the season by winning their last 16 games. That winning streak included four victories at the state tournament, including three by shutout. Marion earned the first baseball state title in program history by scoring seven times in the first inning, on the way to an 11-6 victory over Van Buren to finish 29-5 overall with championships in the 5A East, and the Class 5A state title.

baseball title“That team was just something you had to see to believe,” said Livingston. “The camaraderie was great. They were clearly good ballplayers. The coaches worked tirelessly to help them improve and become the best possible version of themselves that they could be.”

Marion track has enjoyed its best two-year run since the turn of the millennium, as well. The Patriot boys won the Class 5A state title in the 4x400-meter relay, while senior sprinter Julian Carter II claimed the silver medal in the 400 meters and the bronze medal in the 800 meters.


Marion's on-the-field success of late has coincided with dramatic improvements of the school's athletic facilities.

Southern Bancorp Stadium, which houses Marion football and soccer, features new turf, with more than 6,000 bleacher seats, home and visitors press boxes, and an indoor facility with locker rooms.

3M Transit Arena, formerly known as Patriot Volleyball Gym, got a face-lift with a new floor, locker rooms, and scoreboard. When Marion hosted the 2021 state volleyball tournament for the first time, the bleachers were replaced, as was the concession stand located just inside the front doors of the gym.

Fidelity Bank Arena houses Marion basketball, and with its new floor, it has amenities on par with several small colleges, let alone any high school in the state.

arenaFirst National Bank of Eastern Arkansas Stadium may be the best high school baseball facility in the state, featuring an all-turf field, ample dugout room, fenced bullpens, expanded bleacher seating, an all-new press box, and an indoor facility with room for batting cages and lockers.

Marion finished its brand-new softball facility in the fall of 2022 and it too has a turf surface with fenced bullpens, huge dugouts, and new bleachers with a large press box. Patriot softball's brand-new indoor facility is anchored down just behind the right-field fence.

The focus on improving the facilities has moved Marion from also-ran status to the top of the hill.

“The facilities are a universal source of pride in Marion,” said West. “From top to bottom, no school east of Little Rock has anything that compares to what Marion has. I live in northwest Arkansas now, and those schools are just now starting to catch up on the level of facility that Marion has had for a while now.”

“Marion's facilities rival anyone in the state,” said Bennett. “I've been to a lot of the schools now, across a handful of states, and it's hard to think of many schools that have more than one or two facilities better than Marion, and none are better top to bottom. Nobody else in Arkansas can match what Marion has done. Those facilities are as good as any at even a small college.”

Like the school's athletic programs themselves, Marion's facilities have come a long way in short order. Marion football played on a grass field as recently as 2012, and the school improved the press boxes in 2019.

The volleyball gym has undergone wholesale changes since 2016, hardly resembling the gym today that it did then. Fidelity Bank Arena has aged gracefully since its completion in 2009, and its charm is still obvious as soon as you enter the doors.

Marion opening its softball stadium was a long time coming after playing most of the past two decades on a grass field with few of the amenities of newer stadiums.

Marion baseball had grass until 2020, and the indoor facility was finished the previous fall.


In addition to a swelling enrollment, exceptionally hard-working student-athletes, and top-tier facilities, Marion’s coaching staffs have lived and breathed the sports that they’re instructing and programs they’re building.

Beasley was a standout athlete in high school, and has carefully sculpted her program over the past 27 years.

Clark was an all-state athlete in three sports in high school before coaching offense, defense, and special teams for huge high school programs in Alabama. When he arrived in Arkansas to Little Rock Christian, he was the defensive coordinator for three seasons on teams that played for three state titles, and won the school’s first state championship in program history in 2018.

Johnson has molded the Marion girls hoops program into one of the state's top programs in her time at the school, making five semifinal appearances in 11 seasons, and sending countless players to play college basketball. Emmanuel Wade fashioned a stellar 19-5 overall record this past winter in his first season at the school.

Prater has transformed Marion baseball into a statewide brand, with major jumps in participation inside his program. Drake Rowton won 20 games in his first season as softball's head coach in 2023, while T.J. Johnson has put the track program on the map in a major way.

“Obviously, all of these coaches know much about their respective sport, and that goes a long way,” said Livingston. “But they also know how to relate to the kids, how to teach, and how to instill confidence for competition. If you can do one or the other, you can be a good coach, but if you can do both then you can be a great coach. All of our coaches are able to extend their own knowledge to the kids and then the kids can produce.”


In addition to Marion's arsenal of athletic programs that have already established itself as state powers, a host of other clubs are well on their way to the top of the mountain.

Marion's soccer clubs have been re-imagined over the past four years with veteran soccer skippers Chris Paslay taking over the girls program and Sam Uddin reviving the boys outfit. Paslay's Lady Patriots qualified for the 2022 Class 5A state tournament and finished 2023 tied for fourth, missing the dance on a tiebreaker. Uddin has installed an exciting brand of offensive soccer and has overseen improved team unity in his two seasons.

Marion's girls team produced its finest season in some time in 2023, while the boys team has seen participation explode since 2021.

Girls golf earned the 2020 conference title and has remained competitive despite graduating all-conference performers, while the Patriot boys have qualified for the state tournament as a team and as an individual over the past three years.

Julian Carter II has rewritten the Marion track record book in his four seasons, as the Arkansas signee has broken and established four school records. Carter, Arviance LeFlore, Chris Hardin, and Jameon Williams won the 2023 4x400m relay state championship.

The Marion School District is an innovative and growing district committed to helping every student find their unique path to success in school and in life. With more than 150 years of experience serving families in Crittenden County, the district offers a high school, a junior high, a seventh grade school, and three award-winning magnet schools. For enrollment information, including information on school choice, visit or call 870-739-5100.