HOT SPRINGS — Officials scurried to find some extra chairs to bring to the podium Thursday as Conway Christian coach Ashley Nance, assistant Kim Powell and all five starters walked into the interview room after the Lady Eagles secured the 2A girls state basketball title.
They even hauled in the large trophy, which at the moment was the Holy Grail, secured by defeating St. Joseph, Conway’s other Christian-based institution.
"Uh, we’re kind of new at this," said Nance as team and trophy squished together in front of the media. The effect of what had just been accomplished was just hitting them.
A couple of years ago, the Lady Eagles won a state championship in the well-off-the-radar Arkansas Christian Conference.
"We’d play with other girls during the summer and they’d say, ‘So what? You didn’t play teams that were as good as anybody in the AAA. It doesn’t mean nothing.’" said Christiana DenHartog. "Now that we’re state champs in the AAA, I can hardly wait to tell them that we have something real now."
Chuck Speer, Conway Christian’s athletic director, ended up with the task of transporting the trophy to Conway. He cradled it proudly in the foyer of Summit Arena, as a throng of suppporters (many in blue T-shirts with "Refuse to Lose" on the back) parted like Red Sea waters.
"When we joined the AAA last year, I said we were coming in to compete," he said. "I knew we had a girls basketball team that had the potential to do it and they came through. For me this year, it was a matter of just staying out of the way. I just let them go."
The scenario for the championship was set up nicely with a showdown for the title against archrival St. Joseph with the season series tied 2-2.
For awhile Thursday afternoon, Hot Springs was "little Conway." with the blue-clad CCS supporters and the St. Joseph faithful decked out in purple and gold packing both sides of the lower section of the stands. Both student bodies were into it from the beginning — the St. Joseph group doing a lot of clapping and cheering in unison while the CCS group was jumping and gyrating (do we dare call it dancing?).
For St. Joseph, long faces came quickly as CCS took control from the beginning. As the clock ticked down on the Lady Eagles’ victory, the CCS students and fans emitted a roar that built to a crescendo. At game’s end, several students jumped on each other’s back and on Speer’s back.
Nance has been in this game before — as a three-time MVP as a player for Guy-Perkins and as an assistant to her father, Guy coach John Hutchcraft.
"Several of these girls are 18 and I’m 24 and sometimes I got to thinking, ‘I’m too young for this.’" she said. "This was surreal. I began thinking if we were really here. It seemed like just yesterday I didn’t know these girls’ names.
"The difference in being here this time was the responsibility. As a player, I felt more in control."
One person who also felt less in control was Nance’s father, who has won nine state titles (boys or girls). He sat behind the CCS bench, then waited patiently for his daughter to emerge from the locker room. They hugged and posed for some family pictures. Smiling pictures.
"Watching (Ashley) is worse; it’s a lot tougher just sitting there," he said. "When the game starts and you’re coaching, you get into the game and forget about the nerves. You just get into coaching. Particularly knowing we were playing St. Joseph and a team coached by Chris Kordsmeier, I couldn’t relax. You beat a team coached by Chris Kordsmeier for a state championship and you’ve done something. I didn’t feel safe until the last minute."
The downside of the title game may have been with the St. Joseph girls and Kordsmeier, who finished runner-up for the second straight year. They didn’t hide the tears.
At one point, Kordsmeier broke up when trying to describe what that group of girls, which had five seniors, had meant to him.
"It’s a special group," he said, his voice cracking. "They are the kind of student-athletes who will go on to success in many endeavors of life that we all as educators are trying to develop."
Even though the rivalry grew in intensity this basketball season, Nance said she developed an admiration for the St. Joseph team and what they accomplished.
"This was not a negative rivalry to me," she said. "For example, I respect (the Lady Bulldogs’) Jessie Moix as much as any player on my team. Those girls (Lady Bulldogs) worked hard and I respect that. I would not have had a negative feeling if we had lost."
After many had left the arena, and the next game began, a scene occurred far off the radar that was significant as a season-long scrap between the teams came to close.
Joe Mallett, the principal at St. Joseph, walked over to Hutchcraft and gave him a warm handshake and congratulated him on what his daughter accomplished. Mallett and Hutchcraft had many an intense battle when they coached against each other at St. Joseph and Guy-Perkins.
"I bet this one feels the best of all (the state titles Hutchcraft’s teams have won)," Mallett said with a smile.
"You’re right," he said. "This may be the best. It feels the best. Yeah, the best."
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)