Heber Springs’ track and field dynasty continues to blossom into one of the most recognized in all of Arkansas, now having won five of the past six state titles in cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track.
On Thursday, the Panthers capped back-to-back outdoor state titles in dramatic fashion on the home track of fellow 4A power Nashville. Heber edged the Scrappers by a final tally of 127-119.5 for a victory margin of 7.5 points.
Leading by 1 ½ points entering the final race (4 x 400), Heber’s 1,600 relay team blew away the Scrappers and the rest of the competition with a first-place time of 3:26.97, nearly three seconds ahead of De Queen and more importantly, nearly seven seconds ahead of Nashville.
After playing catch-up for 15 events, the Panthers finally overcame Nashville with six points in the 3200 as Jake Sanders finished 4th (10:28.04) and Andrew Powell placed 8th (10:51.64) for a total of six points, while Nashville picked up four points in the event, leaving Heber ahead by 1 ½ points entering the final race.
But, the momentum began to swing Heber’s way during Events 13 and 14. Clint Ligon won the 300 hurdles (40.47) and Jorge Garcia placed 5th (42.08), giving the Panthers 14 points ¬ nine more than Nashville.
Then, Austin Schmidt won the 800 with a time of 2:01.37, while Brock Ballard (7th, 2:06.79) and Blake Leonard (8th, 2:06.81) also placed for a combined 13 points ¬ four more than Nashville. Once Jordan Peterson won the 200 with a time of 22.39 during Event 15, the Panthers could taste a comeback.
However, Heber would not have been in position to make a late charge without the early efforts of Ligon, who scored a team-high 46 points, including first place in the 110 hurdles (15.25), long jump (21’ 8”) and 300 hurdles, plus runner-up in the high jump (6’ 3”) and triple jump (43’ 4”).
The Panthers also dominated the 1600 as Sanders (2nd, 4:35.26), Ballard (7th, 4:48.51) and Powell (8th, 4:49.23) combined for 11 points ¬ one more point than Daniel Moreno earned for Nashville with his first-place run of 4:33.73.
Panther Coach Dale Cresswell was excited and somewhat relieved. “It feels good. They scared the pee out of me all day. To win two years in a row with this group of seniors is a great feeling. Clint Ligon really helped us scoring 46 points. The distance runners didn’t do exactly what I wanted them to do but at least they got up there and got enough points to win the thing.”
Entering the final race ahead by 1 ½ points, Cresswell said his confidence was high. “I was pretty confident my four boys could beat their four boys. After the 800, we got up there close and then Jordan Peterson wins the 200. He is going to college to run the 400 but he won the 100 and 200, so that is pretty cool.” Peterson took 6th in the 400 (52.71).
The Panthers lose the senior leadership of Sanders, Peterson, Hood and Leonard but return Ligon, Schmidt, Ballard, Powell, Garcia and several other contributors, including Ethan Bly, who was hampered by a lingering hamstring injury in Thursday’s meet. Despite the injury, which knocked him out of the 100, 200 and 4 x 400 relay race, Bly still managed to place 5th in the long jump (20’ 10”). Bly won the 100 last season.
Page 2 of 2 - Rounding out the Panthers’ overall point total, the 4 x 800 relay team, consisting of Schmidt, Ballard, Leonard and Sanders, won first place with a time of 8:25.33.
“We are losing a good group of seniors but we still have some juniors that are good, we have some sophomores coming up and ninth graders,” said Cresswell. “The future looks bright in Heber Springs for distance runners and track and field right now. You hate to look back but we came up four points short of winning the Triple Crown two years in a row and that is pretty awesome,” Cresswell said, referring to De Queen’s four-point win in this year’s state cross country race.
Although Cresswell has grown accustomed to winning state titles, it’s tough to top this one, being held at Nashville, whose boys won outdoor state titles in 1982, 1983, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2007 and 2010. “It’s hard to run away from home, especially against the team that is supposed to be second place,” said Cresswell.
Heber’s Sr. Girls also had a solid showing, placing third with 59 points. Nashville won its fourth consecutive state title with 124.5 points and De Queen finished runner-up with 97.5 points.
Three Heber athletes won individual state titles as Anna Engler won the discus with a heave of 99’ 10.5”, Mary Simmons won the 800 (2:31.28) and Madi Fires won the 1600 (5:42.69).
Savannah Thomas placed 3rd in both the 800 (2:34.89) and 1600 (5:47.59), while taking 7th in the pole vault (7’ 6”). Paige Vandivor was 6th in the 100 hurdles (17.52) and Keleah Maples placed 8th in the 300 hurdles (53.00).
Fires also placed in the 3200 (5th, 13:13.35), while Kaitlyn Music took 8th in the triple jump (33’ 5.75”). Rounding out Heber’s point total, the 4 x 400 relay team of Simmons, Alyssa Uphoff, Taylor Eaton and Savannah Thomas placed 3rd with a time of 4:23.48.