LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
High-level basketball has always been a bedrock element of high school sports in Faulkner County.
Every institution in the county plays basketball, and many have been doing it with excellence for years.
In 2009, that foundational excellence blasted to the surface and flowed with volcanic power.
Counting boys and girls, Faulkner County has 16 high school varsity basketball teams. In 2009, five (almost a third) of those (Vilonia’s girls, St. Joseph’s boys and girls, Guy-Perkins boys and Mount Vernon-Enola’s boys) surged to the state finals at Hot Springs in four different classifications. Three of them (almost a fifth) won state titles — Vilonia’s girls, St. Joseph’s boys and Guy-Perkins boys. And Guy-Perkins and MV-Enola played each other, so Faulkner was assurred of at least one state title before a ball was tipped.
In reaching the Class A title game, Mount Vernon-Enola’s boys had beaten Guy-Perkins four straight times, including district and regional championships. The Warhawks lost two games all season --— both to Guy-Perkins and one of them in the state championship game.
By 4-2 domination in the season series against the Thunderbirds, MV-Enola’s boys could claim some kind of unofficial best-of-seven title.
An interesting aspect of that was that the team that most observers expected to be in the state title game, Conway High’s boys, didn’t make it. The Wampus Cats, who won a conference title were upset, in the semifinals by Rogers.
Such an amazing run of success by teams from one county involving five schools and four classifications is believed to be unprecedented in state history. Three championships in three classifications is almost as rare.
What happened last March may never happen again in this county.
It was a March delight.
And when the sports staff at the Log Cabin began discussing the top sports story of 2009 in the county, we gradually began to look collectively rather than singularly. A state championship in a sport by any one team is pretty good. To have five teams play for one in a single sport is remarkable.
So, high school basketball in Faulkner County is the No. 1 sports story for 2009, a testament to the coaches, players, administrators and supporters of the sport throughout the county.
The success has continued in the young 2009-2010 season as the Vilonia girls claimed two tournament titles before Conway Christian, the upstart girls program in the county, handed the Lady Eagles their first defeat in the title game of the Battle at the Brier. Class 2A CCS started the season with upsets of Class 7A Cabot and Class 5A Central Arkansas Christian. Conway’s boys, rated as a strong state title contender, also began the season in strong fashion with two tournament titles.
The remainder of the top 10, as determined by the sports staff, is as follows:
No one saw this coming.
The Panthers, in their second year under Randy Tribble, were 1-19 over the past two season and were picked, customarily, at the bottom of 5A-West Conference, where they had no success.
Greenbrier, with a high-powered offense, proceeded to drive to one of their best seasons in history — 9-4 that included a No. 2 seed in the state playoffs, a victory over Vilonia and the school’s first postseason berth since 1995.
The Panthers came from behind to defeat Little Rock Mills and Little Rock Christian in the state playoffs before losing to eventual state champion Monticello in the semifinals.
It was by far Greenbrier’s most successful season in 5A and the biggest surprise of the year.
3. UCA VOLLEYBALL
With a sub-.500 football season, the joke around the UCA campus was the school was rapidly becoming a "volleyball school."
The UCA volleyball team became arguably the institution’s most decorated and successful team in the early days of NCAA Division I and the Southland Conference.
The Sugar Bears lost only three times — to Rice, Oklahoma and Memphis — and made an undefeated 16-0 run in claiming the Southland Conference championship. They were ineligible for the NCAA playoffs because of the Division I transition.
UCA junior Chloe Smith claimed was named for Player of the Year (for the second time) and Student-Athlete of the year in SLC volleyball. The Sugar Bears played before packed houses at home, creating one of the best volleyball atmospheres in the region.
4. CONWAY FOOTBALL
The Wampus Cats’ 5-7 football season was deceptive.
With an inexperienced team and a new spread offense, the Cats improved steadily in their first season under Clint Ashcraft. One of the most notable aspect was the Cats’ competitiveness and the renewed enthusiasm in the community.
After struggling at the start, Conway came on strong at the end of the season and reached the state playoffs, punctuating its season with a last-second 45-42 victory over Fayetteville, the Cats’ first postseason win since 2003. Cabot, which had defeated the Cats, earlier in the season, ended the Cats’ season in the state quarterfinals.
But Wampus Cat supporters saw enough to build excitement for next season.
5. UCA FOOTBALL
The Bears opened the season in Hawaii — the first football game for UCA outside the continental United States and recorded a benchmark win over Western Kentucky (the school’s first over a NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision opponent) the second game.
What began so promisingly turned into one of the most frustrating seasons in school history. UCA started 5-2, then lost its last five games, all characterized by a series of miscues, penalties and bad luck. UCA lost seven games by a total of 23 points and had a chance to win every game late in the fourth quarter.
It was a "shake-your-head, what might have been" type of season.
6. HENDRIX BASEBALL
The Warriors, who had struggled in baseball in recent years, became another of the surprise stories of the season.
After a modest start, the Hendrix team qualified for the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament. The Warriors not only won their first postseason game in history but made an undefeated run through the conference tournament at Jackson, Miss., defeating traditional national power Trinity and nationally ranked Millsaps in the process.
The triumph marked the first SCAC men’s conference championship in history and earned the Warriors their first trip to the NCAA Division III national playoffs.
After earning Junior Player of the Year honors in the Arkansas Women’s Golf Association, the Lady Cats’ Summar Roachell quickly established herself as another in a line of great Conway golfers.
She was the dominant high school girls player in the state all season and won the state Overall as a freshman in her first year of eligibility. She led the CHS girls to a second-place finish in the 7A state tournament.
8. SOCCER IN CONWAY
It again flourished on the high school level in 2009.
Conway High’s boys built a 43-game winning streak over two seasons, the longest in history by an Arkansas high school team, before Little Rock Catholic halted that with a victory in the 7A title game.
St. Joseph’s girls powered to a state title in their classification.
9. CBC SOFTBALL
With a lineup dotted with players from central Arkansas, the Mustangs had a banner season, surging to a third-place finish in the National Christian College Athletic Association national tournament. They lost in the semifinals to eventual national champion Palm Beach Atlantic, the school former University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin took over as president later in the year.
The Lady Mustangs’ Hailey King was named Position Player of the Year in the NCCAA.
Central Baptist College was accepted for membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a major change in level for the athletic program. Like many schools in the NCCAA, it will have dual membership in the NAIA but the NAIA would take precedent in playoff competition for qualifying teams.
After a campus visit by NCAA officials, UCA was cleared for the final stage of NCAA Division I transition, which should give every team NCAA postseason eligibility by the 2010-2011 season. The institution is expected to gain full NCAA Division I status by June of 2010.