Malvern girls claim consecutive state titles

Donna Lampkin Stephens Published April 27, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Malvern Lady Leopards No. 4 Raven Baker and No. 21 Akasha Westbrook are joined by teammates, coaches and fans as they celebrate the team’s second consecutive Class 4A state championship following a win over Central Arkansas Christian. Over the past two seasons, Malvern has compiled a 62-4 record.

MALVERN — The Malvern girls basketball prograam has undergone a remarkable transformation in the 9 years Jess Martin has been at the helm.

Martin has taken the Lady Leopards from a handful of wins per season to the last two Class 4A state championships — the only two in the school’s history. Malvern is 62-4 over the last two seasons, 88-11 over the last three.

“I think they were averaging winning three or four games a year when I got here in 2004-05, and they told me if I won four games I should run for mayor,” Martin recalled. “I said, ‘I sure don’t want to be mayor, but I do want to win more than four games.’”

The Lady Leopards went 6-19 his first season, but that was considered a success.

“The kids just didn’t want to work hard, didn’t want to practice — a lot were quitting,” Martin remembered. “The first couple of years, I kept asking myself, ‘Did I make a bad choice coming here?’ They were expected to lose, and they just accepted it. When they got down, they pretty much packed it in.

“You had to change the whole mindset, the whole attitude of the team. It took about three years to get the kids on track, but my third year, we got to the state tournament.”

They’ve been there ever since.

In 2009, ’10, ’11 and ’12, the Lady Leopards lost to the eventual state champion. In ’13 and ’14, they won the state title.

“It’s been such a big turnaround,” Martin said. “The kids have bought in. I tell them this is not a part-time job; it’s a full-time commitment. Obviously, we’ve reaped the results.”

Two things made the difference.

“The kids started buying in, and once we made that first state tournament appearance, they said, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Martin said. “From then on, every year we’ve won 23, 24 games.

“The second thing was developing the players. I don’t coach junior high, but I’m over the whole girls program, and I get to go over there and oversee and basically kind of groom those kids in seventh, eighth, ninth grade to play high school ball. When they get here, I’ve already built a relationship and a rapport with them.”

Martin is from Wickes, where as a sophomore in 1990 he played for a boys Class B state title, but his team fell to Parkdale by 2 points. That was his only appearance in a state title game prior to the last two seasons at Malvern.

“That’s a long time between drinks,” he said.

He earned his degree at Henderson State University in 1997 and coached three years at Lake Village, two at De Queen and two at Carthage before arriving at Malvern.

With their 50-44 win over Central Arkansas Christian in the championship game at Hot Springs’ Summit Arena last month, this year’s Lady Leopards finished with a 23-game winning streak. They last lost to Hot Springs in the Spa City Classic on Dec. 28; their only other loss of the season came against Columbia Rock Bridge, Mo., then ranked fifth in the nation, during a tournament in Fort Smith.

Three seniors have signed to play Division I basketball next season: Tiffany Murdock, a 5-8 guard, with Louisiana Tech; Alivia Huell, a 5-11 forward, with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; and Akasha Westbrook, a 5-9 forward, with Arkansas State University. It’s a stunning number for a Class 4A school.

Martin said college coaches from across the country — including Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, UALR, ASU, the University of Central Arkansas, Southern Miss, North Texas and Louisiana Tech — were regulars at Lady Leopard preseason practices.

“They really wanted to see what kind of practice ethic they had and then how they would work to prepare for games,” Martin said. “But the biggest thing the college coaches were sold on was how hard the kids played and how coachable they all were.”

Murdock signed with LaTech’s Teresa Weatherspoon, but the former Lady Techster great was fired in March after two straight losing seasons, the first in the storied program’s history. Tyler Summit, the son of former Tennessee coach Pat Summit, was hired to replace Weatherspoon.

“This has really been stressful, but I’m trying to take one thing at a time,” Murdock said of the transition. “She sold the whole school to me, but I really like the new coach’s mind-

set. You have to keep a positive attitude, and this coach hap-pens to be Pat Summit’s son. Nothing but positive can come from that.”

She said her goal is to add a national championship to the two state titles her team has already earned.

“I’m trying to bring our winning history from Malvern to them,” she said. “I didn’t lose much back in Malvern, and when we did, that team remembered us and will continue to remember us.”

A 3.0 student, she said she hopes to major in athletic training.

Huell, who sports a 3.2 GPA and hopes to study physical therapy, said the opportunity to play for Joe Foley is exciting.

“I’ve heard about his winning history and how he’s known to bring out the best in you, and I like that,” she said. “I’m up for the challenge.”

Westbrook, too, said the coaching staff made a difference in her choice of ASU.

“They were so nice, and they seemed like they really, really cared for me,” she said of Brian Boyer’s program. “I loved that, and their basketball program in general. I loved the campus; it just seemed like a great place for me.”

She, too, will study physical therapy after a 3.7 high school GPA.

Martin said he knew long ago this would be a special class.

“I moved them up [to varsity] when they were freshmen,” he said. “All three of them played together since fifth or sixth grade. When they were in ninth grade, we got to the quarterfinals, and when they were sophomores, we got to the Final Four and lost in the semifinals to Star City. They beat us by five and then in the final beat Farmington by 25.

“That just set the tone for the next two years. The kids could see we were that close to winning it, and they were that much more determined the next year.”

Malvern prevailed over Prairie Grove for the Lady Leopards’ first state title in 2013.

This season was harder, Huell said, because the Lady Leopards were the hunted.

“We knew what we were in for,” Huell said. “From the experience last year, we knew it was going to be twice as hard. We already had that mindset to have to work extra hard to achieve our goal.”

Martin agreed.

“I knew we had four returning starters (the three seniors along with Raven Baker, a 5-8 junior guard),” he said. “We got [junior] Tieris Smith, a 6-3 center, to come back out after not playing last year, and she really developed and got better down the stretch.”

Baker and Smith could be Division I signees next year.

“After we won, it was exciting, but this time it was more relief than anything,” Martin said.

In 2012-13, Malvern stumbled once in 7-4A conference play, to Bauxite. Martin called that “probably the best thing for us.”

“It was the next-to-last conference game, and I knew we were in pretty good shape even after we lost because I went in the locker room, and they weren’t sad — they were mad,” he said. “This year they knew they had to play their best every night. They were just really tough, hard-nosed, really competitive kids.”

Those qualities showed in their eight meetings over the last two seasons with Central Arkansas Christian, a state power for years under Steve Quattlebaum. The Lady Leopards never lost to the Lady Mustangs, prevailing three times last year and five times this season, including for the district, regional and state championships.

“We know each other so well,” Martin said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for each other.”

In the state championship, Malvern rallied from a 6-point halftime deficit with a 14-3 run to start the second half. CAC retook the lead twice in the fourth quarter, but Huell, named the state tournament MVP, scored 9 of her 14 points in the final three minutes to help secure the title.

“That’s a testament to those kids and how hard they work when they come to practice every day to get better,” Martin said. “We’re obviously talented and very athletic. It kind of irritates me sometimes that people say Malvern is just overly athletic and doesn’t have any basketball skills.

“These kids understand basketball, know strategy, understand the basics of the game and the fundamentals. Now, it helps when they are athletic. Three girls on the team can touch the rim. That’s unheard of for girls.”

He credited his wife, Olivia, a librarian in the Malvern district,

for the support necessary for him to reach the pinnacle of high school success the past two seasons. The couple have three sons — Carter, 11; Ethan, 8; and Jude, 15 months — all of whom are sports crazy, he said.

But the girls will have the bulk of his attention for the foreseeable future.

Despite graduating three Division I signees, Martin said, he thinks next season will be less of a rebuilding one than a reload. The Lady Leopards put games away early enough for most of the season that several underclassmen got extended playing time.

“I think we’ll be all right next year,” he said. “I think tradition plays a big part. They know we expect to win, and it seems like these kids find a way to win. Like in the CAC games, they would get ahead, but our girls would always fight back and overcome adversity.

“I think we’re going to be very competitive with everybody we play.”

For years, Malvern has been known as a football town, but the Leopards won a pair of state titles about 20 years ago, and now the Lady Leopards have taken their seat at the head of the table.

“Maybe the stigma has changed,” Martin said.

Winning has a way of doing that.

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