CONWAY — Disappointment turned out to be just what Conway’s young Lady Wampus Cats needed in 2013.
The seeming oxymoron paid big dividends this year.
A year after failing to reach the Class 7A State Basketball Tournament, Ashley Nance’s Lady Cats are the 2014 state champs.
“We had so many sophomores last year; I knew it was going to be tough,” said Nance, who at just 28 has now coached two teams to state titles. “It was a learning experience that left a bad taste in our mouths. It was miserable.
“That gave us extra drive in the offseason and the preseason. We kept reminding them, ‘Don’t forget last year.’ That was a lot of motivation for us.”
The travails helped those sophomores gel into the best team in the state by the end of their junior season. After knocking off Fort Smith Northside, the defending champion, by 74-67 in the championship game at Hot Springs’ Summit Arena, culminating an 11-game winning streak, Conway finished 28-5 — with no seniors on the roster at the end of the season — and won the second state title in school history. The previous one came in 2008.
Yet the Lady Cats were just the fourth seed from their conference.
Nance made her sixth appearance in a state-championship game. As a player, she earned MVP honors three consecutive years under her father, John Hutchcraft, as Guy-Perkins won consecutive titles in 2001, ’02 and ’03. As an assistant coach under her father, she came up short in the championship before moving out on her own. In 2010, just her second year as a head coach, Nance led Conway Christian to the Class 2A state title.
Her pedigree is unparalleled.
And she wasn’t surprised at the Lady Cats’ struggles in 2012-13.
“We had so many young kids coming in, and we also had some seniors, and anytime you’ve got a talented group coming in like that along with an established senior class, there’s going to be a little tension,” she said. “I knew we would have a hard time jelling. I just don’t think that sophomore class last year was ready for that every-night competition. They were used to beating people by 30 or 40 points, playing a couple of quarters, and that’s it. But in our league (7A/6A-Central), it’s four quarters, and you may win by three or four, and that’s good.”
“Being disciplined and hard work pay off,” Nance said. “Sometimes that’s good for people to see. You may not be successful; sometimes, success is not the best teacher. I think it was good, especially for that sophomore group, to understand that. Everything’s not going to be given to you. Talent doesn’t win games. You’ve got to work hard.”
Another issue was assimilating a team from various entities. The Conway junior high system is split between blue and white teams. Most of the Lady Cats played on different Amateur Athletic Union teams.
“When we get them together, we have to build that sense of trust, and that’s a hard thing to do,” Nance said. “In smaller schools, they play on the same team forever. They grow up together, and we don’t have that. It took us a bit to build that trust.”
Another obstacle was the torn ACL of junior Kianna Speight — one of just two returning starters and the top returning scorer — that occurred during an AAU showcase in late September.
“Fortunately, we’re pretty talented,” Nance said. “We had a good bench. As coaches, we had to act like, ‘OK, it happened. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we’ve got to move on and figure out where to go. It took us a little bit, but the girls did a good job of coming together as a team — eventually. It did take a little bit.”
In Speight’s absence, Jordan Danberry, the other returning starter, shone. Danberry, a 5-7 junior point guard, was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Arkansas and MVP of the Class 7A State Tournament. For the season, she averaged 12.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
“The best I’ve ever seen her play came in the second half of the conference season, when we won those 11 in a row,” Nance said. “That streak was by far the best part of her season and really the best part of her high school career.
“She led us, and we were needing someone to be a leader on the floor. Our leading scorer was Alexis Tolefree, a sophomore, but a lot of her points came from Jordan being the point guard and getting the ball to her. When both of them were on, we were hard to beat.”
Tolefree averaged 18.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game.
Danberry said Speight was a big motivation throughout the season.
“She was a big help on the court and off,” Danberry said. “Even with her injury, she remained positive. She was a big loss, but losing her made a lot of people step up.”
Danberry said that at one point, the Lady Cats feared a repeat of 2013.
“Practices turned it all the way around,” she said. “Then we started winning every game, hitting shots. It just started coming together off the court.”
She said she relishes her leadership role.
“I feel I am the leader,” she said. “I like to put the team on my back. I may not score as many points, but I keep them together to make sure they don’t get down, and if they do, I pick them back up. I just practice the little things.”
Another motivation was knowing that Conway’s Buzz Bolding Arena would be the site of the Class 7A State Tournament.
“We didn’t want to not be there when we were hosting it,” Danberry said. “Then when we got in, it was win or go home. We needed to get to that.”
Allie Pack, a 6-1 junior post; Christin Rogers, a 5-10 junior forward; and Asia Willard, a 5-6 junior guard, rounded out the usual starting lineup. Rogers, who averaged 10 points and 6.4 rebounds, earned all-state honors; she joined Tolefree and Danberry on the All-State Tournament team. Willard averaged 9.7 points and 4.4 rebounds. All five made the all-conference team.
The Lady Cats also got good help off the bench from sophomore guard Hailey Estes and freshman guard Savannah Lowe.
“Both of those kids were huge,” Nance said. “They were always coming off the bench giving us a huge spark. There were some games in our long conference winning streak that they won for us.”
Micaela Norment, a junior forward and the first player off the bench, was also plagued by injury.
“She was never 100 percent after our first conference game,” Nance said.
Although the team had to withstand a second-half Northside rally, the Lady Cats clinched the trophy when they won the second quarter, 30-7. They missed one shot, which ended up being a putback, in the period. Nance called it “absolutely” the best eight minutes of her coaching career.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “It’s kind of a blur to me. At that point, everything clicked. For a team to shoot like that, with that kind of pressure, in that environment, with sophomores and juniors — it was good. I was proud of them. They were feeling it for a little bit.”
Danberry said she didn’t realize what was happening.
“I just knew every shot was going in,” she said. “From everybody.”
Nance said that on paper, most people would’ve thought last year that 2015 would be THE year for the Lady Cats.
“But I thought they could do it sooner,” she said. “I thought last year if we could get in the playoffs, we could go deep, but it turned out instead to be a learning experience. After they won, they said immediately, ‘We’ve got to go to work.’ I think Kianna is going to be a lot of our motivation for next year.”
Nance said Speight would have a couple of more months of work before getting into basketball shape.
“We expect her to be back by August,” Nance said. “I assume she’ll be released before then, but it takes a little bit to get that confidence back.”
At just 28, Nance said she felt 48.
“At Conway Christian, it was just different,” she said. “That was my first one, and this one felt more like, almost, a sense of relief. It’s almost like a burden was lifted, like a thousand pounds were lifted off my shoulders. It’s a different feeling.”
The key to her success? Staying the course with her philosophy.
“We’re there when the kids want the gym open,” Nance said of herself and her assistant coach, Jeff Gifford. “We’ve made it a basketball environment. We make sure the kids are having fun. That’s big today.We just try to keep it as lighthearted with discipline as possible and stay true to that course.
“We’ve got to love them just as much as we expect them to work. We start the second day of school, and it goes seven or eight months. You’ve got to keep it fresh.”
Danberry said she appreciates Nance’s honesty.
“Everyone needs an honest coach,” she said. “She doesn’t only talk to us on the court. She makes sure we’re doing well in school, that our home life is OK. She wants us to be the best person we can be.”
Sounds like a recipe for success.