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Vilonia overcomes tornado destruction to reach 5A title game

By Andrew Hutchinson

This article was published May 23, 2014 at 2:30 a.m.

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A tornado wiped out homes and businesses Sunday night in Vilonia. This view is of a side road off U.S. 64. Vilonia Mayor James Firestone said because Faulkner County has been declared a national major disaster area, Vilonia is eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. Firestone said he was scheduled to meet with FEMA officials Tuesday, and a damage-assessment team will be in Vilonia by today. “They come out and actually count the structures that were destroyed,” he said.

— After fighting with her father all day, Sissa Mulligan wasn’t planning on going home the evening of April 27.

As the forecast worsened, however, she received a call from him asking her to come home. Mulligan blew it off until she saw that the storm was only 10 minutes away.

The senior catcher on Vilonia High’s softball team then rushed home and took shelter with her family.

“I didn’t think we were going to make it,” Mulligan said. “The whole time my dad was yelling, ‘Please God just save my family.’”

When she emerged from the ruins, Mulligan realized her house was one of many destroyed by the EF4 tornado that ripped through Mayflower and Vilonia, killing 16 people that Sunday evening.

Her teammate, Alexis Hightower, and one of her assistant coaches, Brooke Rexroat, also lost their homes in the storm.

Despite the destruction, the softball team has rallied and will play in the Arkansas 5A state championship game Friday afternoon at Bogle Park in Fayetteville.

The Storm

The April 27 tornado was not the first to hit the town. Almost exactly three years earlier, an EF2 tornado killed four people in Vilonia.

That day, April 25, 2011, Vilonia assistant softball coach Brooke Rexroat was at home. She took shelter in a bathtub and was on the phone with her mother when she felt her house starting to shake. The tornado went up the road, though, and didn’t hit her house.

When the tornado sirens sounded last month, Rexroat and her husband turned on the news. About 15 minutes later, the sirens sounded again.

“It was in Mayflower, so we got a little nervous,” Rexroat said. “We got ready to come up to the shelter just in case and then the sirens went off a third time.”

With the 2011 storm in the back of their minds, they piled into the car and went to a tornado shelter outside of their neighborhood.

After the storm passed, Rexroat and her husband weren’t allowed back into their neighborhood because of a gas leak. Instead, they drove an hour and a half to stay with Rexroat’s parents.

It was while watching television at her parents’ house that she learned her house had been destroyed. The couple was watching the news when they saw Rexroat’s car underneath their collapsed garage.

“We figured it was gone,” Rexroat said. “That’s what we had heard, but we didn’t really know for sure until we saw it on TV.”

Rexroat stayed at her parents’ house for a week before returning to Vilonia. During that time, Sissa Mulligan and the rest of the team returned to practice.

The Lady Eagles’ first practice was on Wednesday, only three days after the tornado. Two days later, they traveled to Huntsville for their first game since the storm.

“That was probably the best thing for me,” Mulligan said. “Just seeing how my teammates and coaches were there for me meant the world to me.”

Following the game, Huntsville gave Vilonia goodie bags and a monetary donation. It also fed the softball team dinner.

Later in the season, the Greenbrier softball team, Vilonia’s rival, presented the Lady Eagles with a $2,400 check.

Personally, Mulligan’s family received a check in the mail from someone in Massachusetts after they appeared on the news.

“When it first happened, I kind of thought that everything would just fall apart,” Mulligan said. “Everybody that knows about it is trying to help and be there for us and that means a lot to us.”

The Title Game

During the tornado, Mulligan lost all but six of the 87 trophies she had accumulated since she began playing softball as a young girl.

She said that her family is lucky to be alive, so she can’t complain, but she would like to start rebuilding her collection.

Mulligan can add a state championship ring to it with a win over While Hall Friday at 2 p.m.

It will be Vilonia’s second title appearance in three years. In 2012, the Lady Eagles lost to White Hall 5-2.

Brooke Rexroat said she doesn’t expect the same result when the two teams square off in a rematch of that 2012 state title game.

“We were there a couple years ago, but I think this time is different,” Rexroat said. “I think that they know that there’s more than a state championship on the line.

“They are Vilonia and they are Vilonia strong.”

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