Heber Springs wins yet another state outdoor track and field title

By Donna Stephens Originally Published June 30, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 28, 2013 at 10:53 a.m.
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— It might not be long before people start calling Heber Springs track and field coach Dale Cresswell the next John McDonnell.

In May, Cresswell’s Panthers became the first Arkansas high school track and field program to win two triple crowns — a sweep of the cross country, indoor and outdoor titles in the same school year.

McDonnell, a retired University of Arkansas track and field coach, set the standard for such things and introduced the term to Arkansans 30 years ago. His Razorback teams won a combined 40 national championships and finished in the top 10 in cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field 24 times during his 36-year tenure. Five of his teams won the NCAA Triple Crown, starting in 1984-85.

Only three other schools have ever won one Arkansas high school triple crown: Rogers in Class 7A, Russellville in Class 6A and De Queen in Class 3A.

In 2012-13, Heber Springs won the Class 4A cross country crown at Oaklawn Park in November, the Panthers’ fifth state title since 2004, when they placed runners third, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth to tally 26 points, well better than runner-up Valley View’s 89. They also won the Class 1A-4A State Indoor meet in February, their third consecutive; and their third straight Class 4A State Outdoor meet at home in May, outpointing perennial contender Nashville, 116-67.

Heber Springs’ three Class 4A outdoor titles put it second on the all-time list behind Crossett’s four. Waldron has also won three.

In fact, only a runner-up finish — by four points — to De Queen in the 2011 state cross country meet interrupted a triple triple crown for the Panthers.

Most programs dream of one state title, much less eight in the last three years.

“It was something you really don’t put out there as a goal originally, but after I could see it would be possible, we did put it out there,” Cresswell said of capping the second triple crown. “It was good for our kids, myself and coach [Johnette] Goldman (Heber’s girls coach who works as Cresswell’s assistant; he does the same for her). It was satisfying.

“It was something the kids had worked for, and they reached their goal, so that was pretty cool.”

Seniors Clint Ligon, Ethan Bly, Andrew Powell, Zack McArthur, Devin Redding and Jorge Garcia were on the squad as sophomores when the Panthers won their first triple crown. Derrik Fisher joined the team for his senior year.

Cresswell called the group “one of a lifetime.”

“You may never get that again, especially when you have two kids who can score 40 points every meet, and they’re not in the same events,” he said of Ligon and Bly, who will compete for Arkansas State and the University of Central Arkansas, respectively, next year. “And you could tell Andrew Powell you wanted him to take care of the younger ones, and you wouldn’t have to worry about his leadership.”

Powell, who scored a perfect 36 on his ACT, learned during the state meet that he had been accepted to Yale, where he will walk on with the track program.

Ligon said the second triple crown was the crowning experience for his senior class.

“It was very exciting, really all I’d hoped for, being the last championship of my high school career,” he said.

At the outdoor meet, Dollarway finished third with 61 points. Lake Village (42) and Valley View (38) rounded out the top five.

“It was a lot easier than I expected,” Cresswell said of the dominating margin over Nashville. “I think it was more or less some of the athletes not coming out for Nashville. Some of them played baseball instead of running track.”

That’s not a problem at Heber Springs. In fact, Cresswell said, coaches encourage their athletes to also participate in other sports, but several choose to focus solely on track and field.

In the state outdoor meet, Bly won the 100 in 11.06 seconds, the 200 in 22.59 and the 400 in 51.00 and took second in the long jump (21-9.5). Ligon won the 110 hurdles in 15.44 seconds and finished second in the 300 hurdles (40.02). The 4x400 relay team of Garcia, Bly, Austin Schmidt and Daniel Henley won in 3:30.55, and the 4x800 team of Schmidt, Garcia, McArthur and Brock Ballard won going away in 8:31.23, more than 14 seconds ahead of the second-place team.

Other Panthers scoring were Schmidt, third in the 400 in 52.07; Ballard, second in the 1,600 in 4:39.14; fourth in the 800 in 2:06.94 and sixth in the 3,200 in 10:54.06; McArthur, fifth in the 800 in 2:07.61; Malachi Cannon, fifth in the 1,600 (4:45.84); Powell, sixth in the 1,600 (4:48.08) and seventh in the 3,200 (10:57.29); Redding, eighth in the 3,200 (10:59.03); Garcia, sixth in the 300 hurdles (42.11); and Fisher, eighth in the shot put (43-3).

In the Meet of Champs, which brings together the state champions in all classifications, as well as the next best times overall, Ligon won the 300 hurdles (39.80) and took second in the 110s (14.87); the 4x400 relay team won in 3:23.55; the 4x800 finished second (8:14.38); Bly was seventh in the 100 (11.42) and 400 (50.73); and Ballard was seventh in the 1,600 (4:47.68).

“The great thing about it all is we had guys really push each other,” Ligon said. “We all wanted the best for each other. Even though track sometimes is an individual sport, we all wanted to see each other do the best we could do. I wanted to be better than Ethan, and Ethan wanted to be better than me.”

Ligon repeated his third-place finish in the Arkansas High School Decathlon from last year, but he improved his point total from 5,908 to 6,240. Bly was ninth with 5,649. Ballard, a junior, finished 34th with 4,597.

Ligon said he looks forward to getting to ASU, where his outdoor season will include the decathlon, which will add the javelin and subtract the triple jump from the high school version. He called that a good swap for him.

So after all that success, what goals will Cresswell and his next group set?

“I’d like to get another triple crown, and it would be nice for the girls to win an outdoor state title,” he said. “They’ve never done that.

“I do have some kids coming up, some juniors who are going to help out, and some younger ones who can help out later, too. You never know until the season starts and really not until they run the last race.”

For the third straight year, Cresswell was selected as the Arkansas High School Coaches Association’s Boys Track Coach of the Year. He was honored during the recent All-Star Week activities.

John McDonnell would be proud.

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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