A strong cast of characters helped give the Conway basketball team the best possible ending to its storybook season.
But the development of those characters and plots along the way made things even more interesting for the Wampus Cats, who defeated Fayetteville last Friday night to claim the Class 7A state championship — the first state title since 1976.
"Everywhere you look, there seemed to be an interesting storyline," Conway coach James Bates said, reflecting on what he referred to as a "dream season." "There’s so many storylines with this group. It’s a special, special group."
Like any good story, there were the main characters and those who played more of a supporting role. But it took the collective effort — particularly in state tournament play — to write the final chapter.
"Everybody stepped it up a notch," Bates said. "The whole bunch just kind of fed off each other. That’s what you’ve got to do."
The final chapter, though, couldn’t have been written without the first.
Around Thanksgiving, Conway played in the Rumble on the Ridge and eventually won the tournament. However, some of the main characters weren’t able to be heavily involved.
"One night, Kenyon (McNeaill) gets in foul trouble, and the next night Preston (Purifoy) has to sit because of fouls," Bates said. "Our younger guys got significant minutes during that, and we were still able to keep winning.
"When those things started happening early, it gave our younger kids confidence that it didn’t matter who was on the court, we could beat anyone."
Four days later, the Cats ran into then defending Class 6A state champion Jacksonville. That wasn’t much of a problem, as Conway won by double digits. But, the Red Devils would become more of an antagonist later one.
The Cats finally got to play at home a week later in the annual John Stanton Wampus Cat Invitational, where they ran into Jacksonville again. This time, though, the Red Devils were much more of a challenge, as it took a late 3-pointer from Micah Delph to lift Conway to the win. The following night, the Cats faced a tough North Pulaski group in the tournament title game and went down to the wire in that one.
A tired Conway team dropped its first game of the season, a loss to Watson Chapel, the following Tuesday. Still, confidence began to blossom.
"In the early games, these are the guys everyone is talking about, and we’re beating them," Bates said. "We began to think that if we can beat them, then we can play with just about anyone."
More wins came, and so did the final loss of the season — a late December setback to a highly ranked team from Tennessee. As a result, the Cats — full of confidence and hungry for more wins — entered 7A-Central Conference play with a 10-2 record.
That’s when the story really began to pick up.
That’s also when Conway started a new chapter that didn’t include any losses. The Cats ran through conference play with a perfect 14-0 record.
Naturally, confidence began to swell even more, especially late.
"After about nine or 10 games (into conference play), we began to think we could go undefeated," Bates said. "We’d been playing really well defensively. We were very focused. But thinking we could finish undefeated in conference kind of focused us even more."
It was evident there was a drive there among the players, especially for McNeaill and Purifoy — the main characters in this story, who just missed out on a state title their sophomore season and played starving to win one before the end of their high school careers.
"Whatever it takes for those guys to win, they were willing to do. You have to admire that," Bates said of his standout seniors, who finished as the only three-time all-state performers in the program’s history. "The experience of having been there had to be a driving force to get back.
"They’ve been at the top of the 2010 class all the way through. They’re so unselfish and not jealous of each other. They kind of rub off on the other guys."
That’s the crux of the ongoing plot. For, while these main characters played the largest role, the rest of the cast had been working toward their turn in the spotlight.
"We were able to develop younger players in key roles," Bates said. "Everything seemed to fall into place."
When state tournament time rolled around, the Cats two familiar faces before the title game. Wins against Little Rock Catholic and Little Rock Central propelled Conway into its second state championship game in three years.
Add North Little Rock — which lost to Fayetteville in the semifinals — to that group, and three of the final four teams were from the Central conference.
"I think we may have gained some confidence when we saw that three of the four teams were from the Central conference," Bates said. "We’d already played them, and maybe the teams we played were just better.
"That made us feel better about ourselves."
That includes defeating Little Rock Central after McNeaill suffered a first-quarter injury and missed the rest of the game. Purifoy’s play helped seal the win, then the story reached it’s summit in Hot Springs.
"The first points were scored off an assist from a man with one arm, and then he makes a left-handed free throw," Bates said of McNeaill, who started the title game even with a severely sprained wrist. "Looking back at how the kids shot the ball and the fact that they were able to do that in the biggest moment in their high school career is a pretty amazing feat.
"It makes for a very interesting story."
A plethora of storylines throughout the year helped add interest to the story, including the fact that Purifoy, McNeaill, Delph, Teshawn Sims and Colt Fason — all of whom were named all-conference selections — started every game in league play. That’s something Bates said he’d not been able to do with past teams.
The combination of the plots helped make a story the Cats will no doubt not soon forget, especially when the final portion is taken into consideration.
"We’re going to enjoy this one," Bates said. "It’s a well-deserved ending to a special group."