Harding Academy’s Wildcats continue to add to hardware

By Donna Stephens Originally Published June 30, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 28, 2013 at 11:01 a.m.
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Harding Academy’s Will Francis (21) and his teammates celebrate with classmates on the sidelines after the team defeated Episcopal Collegiate during the 3A State Championship game this past spring at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock. The school had quite a bit of success this past year, as the Wildcats and Lady Wildcats combined for four state championships — with titles in football, boys basketball, baseball and girls track.

— Two state championships weren’t enough for Harding Academy, so the Wildcats and Lady Wildcats won two more in May.

The baseball and girls track titles added to those won by football and boys basketball in 2012-13, making for a special school year.

“We had a combination of skilled kids, great attitudes and coaches who pushed them, and we ended up with some great results,” said James Simmons, the fourth-year superintendent. “We had great leadership from the senior class — kids who had played together for many, many years who knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and tendencies.

“They had a great familiarity with each other and great support for each other. Kids were continually encouraging and rallying around each other at critical times when we could’ve broken easily and had different results.”

The success on the field and floor carried over to the classroom and hallway.

Harding Academy requires each student to take the ACT, and last year’s average (which included scores for most of this year’s senior class) was 24.6, well above the state average of 21.2.

Simmons, who spent his career in public schools prior to coming to Harding Academy, said it was not unusual for the hallways to be full 30 to 45 minutes after the final bell.

“It’s a unique situation,” he said. “Most hallways are empty 10 minutes after the bell. I have been very impressed with their attitudes. They’re all about supporting our team and don’t have all that negativity toward our opponents.”

And certainly, the success all year had an effect inside the building.

“Student attitudes, morale of faculty, staff, parents — everybody is improved by the successes on the field,” Simmons said.

And there was plenty of that.

Roddy Mote’s Wildcats won the school’s fifth state football title, the Class 3A championship, with a perfect 14-0 record, knocking off Glen Rose, 49-45, in the final game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

Brad Francis led the Wildcats to the school’s first boys state basketball championship, beating Episcopal Collegiate at Barton Coliseum, 45-40.

Kelsie Turley’s Lady Wildcats, who had finished third in the state cross-country meet, won the school’s third consecutive state girls track and field title, outpointing runner-up Mansfield, 141.33 points to 82.83, at Green Forest.

And Shane Fullerton’s baseball team won the program’s second state championship since the program’s inception in 2005, blasting Fordyce in the final, 14-3, at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

“It was a lot of fun, a lot of positive energy,” Turley said of the special year. “Everyone was rooting for everyone. Everything we did was very exciting. There were high expectations and a lot of support from everyone.

“It was a fun year. We had a great time.”

Lady Wildcats track

Turley has taught at Harding Academy for six years and has coached for just two, but she knew the Lady Wildcats had a shot at their third consecutive title.

“I knew going in we had two runners who could win their events and do very well, and they ended up doing that,” she said. “But you need more than that. I know from other track experiences, you need more than just first places. You’ve got to have others fill in, and others stepped up.”

Her daughter, sophomore Kaylin Turley, won three individual events and ran a leg on the winning 4x400 relay team. She won the 800 in 2:30.74, the 1,600 in 5:36.67 and the 3,200 in 12:35.92. She also took fifth in the long jump with a leap of 15 feet, 8.5 inches.

Sophomore Riley Rose swept the sprints, winning the 100 in 12.55, 200 in 26.22 and 400 in 1:02.44.

The 4x400 relay team of Turley, Rose, Anna-Grace Kirkman and Rosemary Michael won in 4:23.96.

Other Lady Wildcat scorers were Angela Eichhorn, who qualified seventh for the 100-meter hurdle final but took second in 16.31 and also finished runner-up in the 300 hurdles in 51.14; Kirkman, third in the 400 in 1:05.55 and eighth in the 200 in 28.70; Michael, fourth in the 800 in 2:43.35; Haley Smith, fifth in the triple jump at 31-10 and tied for eighth in the high jump at 4-8; the 4x800 relay, fifth in 11:23.87; and Meredith Williams, eighth in the 3,200 in 13:52.76.

“After the field events, we were behind, so we were kind of nervous,” coach Turley said. “Then Angela got second in the 100 hurdles, Riley won the 100, and Kaylin won the 1,600, so in the first three running events, we got 28 points. That was when it got real exciting.”

Kirkman, Eichhorn, Michael and Williams were graduating seniors.

Wildcats baseball

Fullerton, the baseball coach, remembered former athletic director Mike Keese speculating prior to the start of the school year that 2012-13 might be a special one.

“My thought process was, I see exactly what you’re saying, and I’m usually an idealist,” said Fullerton, who spent nine years at the helm of the Harding University program. “Anything is possible, and let’s go, but still you hear things like that, and you think, ‘That would be nice, but …,’ and you come up with reasons why it can’t happen.

“As much of a competitor as I feel like I am and all of our coaches are, you just don’t see [four state championships] happen. The season that the football team had was enough of a fairy tale to end it right there, but we knew going in our basketball team was really going to have a shot, and another fairy-tale run was not out of the realm of possibility.”

And after two, the pressure grew for the baseball Wildcats to match their classmates.

“I felt that for a little while, but it got to a point that I didn’t anymore, and we just focused on how joyful we were [for football and basketball’s accomplishments],” he said. “That pressure was off, and we knew our team was capable of special things. I know we did our best to prepare them, but our kids’ great competitiveness and great character helped us play the best baseball we could play at the right time, and that’s what we did.”

The Wildcats finished 25-8 with most of the losses coming to bigger schools. Fullerton said his nonconference schedule was the toughest of his three-year Harding Academy tenure.

But the losses that hurt the most came in the Class 3A Region 2 Tournament. The Wildcats won their conference and the district tournament to enter as the top seed from the 3A-2. They won their opener to secure a berth in the state tournament — which they were to host — by beating Perryville, 15-10.

“That was a high-pressure game,” Fullerton said. “We didn’t feel like we played our best, but we got a win. Then we played probably our two worst games of the year.”

In the regional semifinals, Episcopal Collegiate prevailed, 9-2, sending the Wildcats to the consolation game.

“That was probably the worst outing in any sport that Will Francis has had,” Fullerton said, referring to the senior pitcher/shortstop who was MVP in the state football and basketball championships and who entered the game with an ERA under 1.

That loss pitted the Wildcats against a hot Mayflower team in the third-place game. Fullerton decided against using his ace, J.R. Miller (who finished 13-0) to save him for the state tournament, and Mayflower rolled, 16-2.

“It was a humiliating loss in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t demoralizing,” Fullerton said. “Our kids fought to the end of that game. And afterward, they bounced back. There was an air about us — everybody knew we were not done.”

Still, the Wildcats entered their host state tournament as the region’s fourth seed.

“We didn’t know if people would take us for granted, but we knew that we were more like a 1 seed than a 4, and we were coming out of one of — if not the — strongest region in the state,” Fullerton said.

A strong week of practice prior to state set the stage for a 17-0 first-round win over Rivercrest, top seed from Region 3. Miller went four innings and got the win — the first of three for him in the state tournament. Francis bounced back to lead Harding to a 5-1 quarterfinal win over Lamar. Miller then threw all six innings in a 12-2 semifinal win over Genoa Central. He also went all the way in the 14-3 championship decision over Fordyce.

“We had all three pitchers we depended on all year long ready to go,” Fullerton said, referring to Francis and senior Trent Finley.

The Wildcats faced Fordyce’s Cole Johnson, who signed with the University of Central Arkansas. They scored five runs in the first inning and five more in the second to build a 10-0 lead before settling for the 11-run win.

Besides Miller (named MVP of the tournament), Francis and Finley (who averaged better than .400 and hit 14 home runs), Harding Academy graduated center fielder Caleb Spears, right fielder Noah Watson and outfielder Wil Rose.

Rose and Francis were the only two athletes to play on all three boys state championship teams.

Fullerton said the team’s motto was “Honor God or go home.”

“God’s the one who gave you the talent, so honor him, and that means you play hard with a great attitude, and things will work out,” Fullerton said. “We had very little worry in sticky situations or after losses. They bounced back and worked hard. They did a better job than their coach did every day.”

He said his family, which includes son J. Paul, a freshman player, stayed overnight in Fayetteville following the championship game.

“When we got up the next morning with that trophy in the hotel room, it was pretty surreal,” Fullerton said. “I talked about that with my two sons. It’s pretty humbling to look at that trophy and realize that as great as it is and as much as we’ll celebrate, there’s going to be a day when we have to lay our trophies down, and you need to remember who you are.

“I also got a taste of reality when I came home and realized the yard needed to be mowed. Someday people are going to forget about [the state championship].”

But at Harding Academy, it will take a while to forget this year.

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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