Panthers look to pounce on historic opportunity

By Donna Stephens Originally Published February 24, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 22, 2013 at 10:51 a.m.
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— Seven state championships in the last three years aren’t enough for the Heber Springs boys track and field program.

They’ll go for their eighth in the Class 4A Outdoor Championships in May, but a triumph there would mean so much more.

Should they win, the Panthers would become the first Arkansas track and field program to win two triple crowns — a sweep of the cross-country, indoor and outdoor titles in the same school year.

“We like winning,” said Andrew Powell, a senior distance runner. “You get used to it, but it’s definitely not something we take for granted.”

Indeed, only three other schools have ever won one triple crown: Rogers in Class 7A, Russellville in Class 6A and De Queen in Class 3A.

“That would be pretty nice,” said Dale Cresswell, who coached Heber Springs to the triple crown in 2010-11 and a “double crown” in 2011-12 after the Panthers finished second to De Queen in the Class 4A State Cross Country Meet — by four points.

But after that disappointment, the Panthers have responded with four state titles: indoor and outdoor last year, and cross country and indoor this year.

“Outdoor is the hardest to do because you’ve got to get there yourself,” Cresswell said. “You have to qualify. In cross country, I can take my top nine, and indoor, we can have three in each event.”

He has used the disappointment of the 2011 runner-up finish in cross country as motivation for the Panthers.

And he continues to do so.

“I think they thought we had it,” he said. “So after we won the indoor this year, we’d already won cross country, so I had to get them in the classroom and tell them, ‘Hey, you can’t have the big head. You have a chance to be the only one to ever win two triple crowns in Arkansas, but everybody wants to beat Heber Springs; it don’t matter what classification they are.”

He regularly takes the Panthers to meets that feature Class 6A and 7A competition.

“That makes us better,” he said. “I told them, ‘People want you; it don’t matter who you are or who they are. (Class) 7A and (Class) 1A want to beat you.”

Not many people beat Heber Springs at the Class 1A-4A State Indoor meet in February as the Panthers won their third consecutive indoor title. They scored 129.2 points, more than double runner-up Nashville, which had 52. They won six events — one better than last year: senior Ethan Bly took the 200 in 23.52 seconds; junior Austin Schmidt won the 400 in 52.03; junior Brock Ballard won the 800 in 2:06.29; senior Clint Ligon won the 60-meter hurdles in 8.83; the team of Bly, Jorge Garcia, Logan Henley and Schmidt prevailed in the 4x400 relay in 3:39.27, nearly eight seconds faster than runner-up Maumelle; and the team of Schmidt, Garcia, Zach McArthur and Ballard won the 4x800 relay in 8:55.97, nearly 30 seconds faster than runner-up Elkins.

Other Panthers placing were Bly, second in the 60-meter dash in 7.28 seconds; senior Logan Henley, fourth in the 200 in 24.21; senior Daniel Henley, seventh in the 200 in 24.58; Bly, second in the 400 in 53.61; McArthur, fourth in the 800 in 2:11.94; sophomore Malachi Cannon, eighth in the 800 in 2:17.27; Ballard, fourth in the 1,600 in 4:51.64; Cannon, fifth in the 1,600 in 4:55.48; senior Andrew Powell, third in the 3,200 in 10:42.17; Ballard, seventh in the 3,200 in 11:19.21; Ligon, sixth in the high jump at 5-8; senior Cody Ellis, tied for eighth in the high jump at 5-6; Ligon, second in the long jump at 21-3.75; Bly, fifth in the long jump at 19-11.5; Ligon, fourth in the triple jump at 41-6; and senior Derrik Fisher, sixth in the shot put at 42-4.5.

Indeed, Cresswell said he had one of the most balanced teams of his tenure (21 years at Heber; 10 over the track program).

The sprints are strong, led by Ligon, who has signed as a decathlete with Arkansas State, and Bly, 100-meter outdoors state champion as a sophomore. Powell, a National Merit Finalist who has scored a perfect 36 on his ACT, anchors the distance corps; Schmidt and Ballard also help in those events. Ligon is versatile enough to add field events to his repertoire; he scored 46 points in the outdoor state meet last year.

“This is the first time since I’ve been coaching track that I’ve got two throwers going over 40 feet in the shot put,” Cresswell said. “And they’re getting better. I even have a pole vaulter who has jumped 10 feet, which is not great, but we’ve got three this year. One of them, Evan Peeler, has had two knee surgeries and can’t play any other sports, but he is close to 11 feet in the pole vault, which will score in our conference meet.”

Ligon said his No. 1 goal is to go out a winner as a senior.

“It already has been a great senior year, and I have full confidence that we’ll win,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. We still weren’t running on all cylinders at indoors. We usually do better outdoors.”

He said the disappointment of the 2011 cross-country loss had served as a rallying cry for the team.

“It really brought everyone together,” he said. “Our group’s all really tight. It does bring us together to focus in on something.”

Bly went so far as to call it “a defining moment.”

“In any sport, you can’t get a big head,” he said. “Anything can happen on a given day, so you’ve really got to go out there and be confident in your team, be able to perform at any meet. You try your hardest, but other teams are trying to win also.

“We just weren’t feeling it that day. Obviously, any other team can have that defining moment on that day, and I feel like that gave us motivation to go out there and get at least two more state titles (last year), indoor and outdoor, and that’s what we did.

“To win two triple crowns — that is definitely motivation. We haven’t talked too much about it because we’re trying not to get ahead of ourselves too much, but there is some motivation to be the only team in Arkansas to ever do that. To make some history would be a great thing, especially for my senior year.”

Powell added: “We’re ready for another run.”

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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