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Morrilton wins state football championship

By Donna Lampkin Stephens/Contributing Writer

This article was published December 22, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.


Morrilton head coach Cody McNabb discusses strategy with his team during a timeout.

MORRILTON — In 2010, Cody McNabb left his position as defensive coordinator at Russellville to become the head coach at Morrilton, which had won only one game in 2009.

Three years later, the Devil Dogs are state champions — the first time in 40 years.

Morrilton (12-2) survived Batesville (11-3) in the Class 5A state championship game Dec. 14 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, 27-24, when the Pioneers barely missed a 37-yard field goal as time expired.

“He missed it wide left by 3 inches,” said senior quarterback Toney Hawkins, named the game’s Most Valuable Player. “It was real close. Our coach told us early in the year that to win a state championship, you’ve got to have a little luck.

“We had it that game.”

They also had the skill to complement the luck.

McNabb’s arrival has corresponded with a significant resurgence in the program:

• In 2010, Morrilton went 3-7.

• In 2011, the Devil Dogs reached the playoffs for the first time in several years, falling in the first round to finish 6-5.

• In 2012, they were 8-3, reaching the quarterfinals.

• In 2013, they opened with a loss to Class 6A Russellville, and they fell to Alma to finish runner-up in the 5A-West. But otherwise, they ran the table, knocking off Nettleton in the first round of the playoffs, 56-25, and winning at Pulaski Academy, 57-50, and at Hope, 24-21, to set up the championship date in Little Rock.

Doyne Davis, the winningest coach in Morrilton High School history, led the Devil Dogs to state titles in 1971 and ’73 and a runner-up finish a few years later.

But the program has not mirrored that sustained success until now.

“Coach Davis had a 15-year-or-so tenure when they were one of the class programs in the state of Arkansas,” Morrilton Athletic Director Trent Tipton said. “Mickey Billingsley had some good teams in the early ’90s, and Chris Hill took us to a runner-up finish in 2005, but no question. This three-year run — we’ve not won 26 games in a three-year period since Doyne Davis.”

Hawkins said the loss to Alma was a good wake-up call.

“We had the big head and thought we were pretty good, but we had five turnovers that night,” he said. “In the PA game, we were the underdog by a lot of points. We were the only ones in the state who thought we could win, and afterward, we thought we had a good chance [to win the title].”

Morrilton’s previous two state championships came in 1971 and ’73.

McNabb said two days after the championship game that it was gratifying to bask in the latest accomplishment.

“This is a great community with a great fan base that has been just a tremendous fit for myself and my family, so it’s a great feeling knowing how excited they are after 40 years of not having [a state title],” he said.

To put things in perspective, McNabb is 37.

“And more than that, this is for the kids,” he said. “This has been the most enjoyable group of kids that I have coached. For them to see their hard work pay off, and their dedication and commitment to a goal — it’s a very rewarding feeling.”

It was a leap of faith by both parties when Morrilton Athletic Director Trent Tipton hired McNabb in 2010. McNabb had spent six years as a graduate assistant and assistant coach at Arkansas Tech and six seasons at Russellville High School. His wife, Carin Pinion-McNabb, was the girls basketball coach at Dardanelle.

“From the outside looking in, I always thought Morrilton had some potential,” said McNabb, who graduated from high school at Mountain Home. “I just felt like I was ready to be a head coach, and I thought that was as good a job for me and my family as I could take.

“They kind of took a chance on me. I was an assistant with no head coaching experience, and that’s not always a popular thing.”

Tipton said he “didn’t know Cody McNabb from Adam” when the football position opened last. A Morrilton basketball coach, he had coached against Carin

Pinion-McNabb, and he remembered her jokingly asking him over the years when he might hire her husband.

“But he came down and visited with me informally when we first started the process,” Tipton recalled. “He just has a way of connecting with people. He’s not a real elaborate speaker; he’s just a down-to-earth guy who I thought would fit in Morrilton.”

His reputation among fellow coaches was stellar, Tipton said, as McNabb came highly recommended by people on and off his reference list, including Clint Ashcraft and Brian Raney from Conway, Daryl Patton of Fayetteville, Jeff Williams from Fort Smith Southside and Jeff Holt and Jim Dickerson from Russellville.

“Those people absolutely convinced me you couldn’t go wrong with him,” Tipton said. “From real quick in the search, I was a believer and sold on him. Obviously, his not having head coaching experience was a big challenge to sell to some people, but it’s worked out fine.”

One of the keys to the recent success, McNabb said, had been the ability to largely keep his staff intact over the years. He praised the work of offensive coordinator Zach Watson and defensive backs coach Scott Poteete, both of whom McNabb brought to Morrilton; wide receivers coach Todd Sparks and defensive line coach Brooks Muller, both of whom McNabb inherited; former offensive line coach Kent Chambers, who was with McNabb for his first three years before becoming assistant high school principal this year; and Chambers’ replacement, Austin Emerson.

“When you become a head coach, you realize how much more important everybody around you is than you are,” McNabb said. “I’ve been able to keep a talented staff.”

Twenty-one seniors went out as state champions.

“I thought this would be a good year if we stayed healthy, but to say it was THE year — you know how coaches are. We want to do things one game at a time, but it was definitely something the kids and I talked about, goal-wise — making a run to Little Rock,” McNabb said.

Reese Heidenreich, a senior wide receiver/safety/punt and kick returner who caught five passes for 96 yards and 2 touchdowns in the state championship game, said it was fitting to close his career on top.

“Coach McNabb is a great coach, and our senior class is really close,” Heidenreich said. “Everybody knew we had a really good athletic class.”

Carin Pinion-McNabb is now in her third season as Morrilton’s girls basketball coach. The couple’s children, second-grader Chloe, 7, and Champ, 5, are settled as Devil Dogs.

“[The community has] really committed to our family,” McNabb said. “It’s been a good fit for us. We love it here.”

The only glitch was the postgame celebration.

“I was in shock when I saw he missed the field goal,” Heidenreich said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was stunned for a second, and then I heard the fans erupt, and everybody started going crazy. I joined in.

“We didn’t pour Gatorade on coach McNabb. I guess we forgot about it.”

After 40 years, who could blame them?

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