When Heber Springs' cross country teams pop their tent in preparation for a meet, opposing teams take notice. That's part of the mystique behind a program with multiple state championships.
After winning state in 2010 on its way to a Triple Crown, De Queen edged the boys' team by four points at state last season. This fall, Heber is working hard to return to the top.
De Queen and Shiloh Christian, two of the Panthers' primary competitors, have both moved up to Class 5A for the upcoming two-year cycle, leaving Valley View as Heber's main concern.
“It helps that De Queen has gone to Class 5A so we don't have to worry about them,” said Coach Dale Cresswell, who has led the boys' program to four state championships over the past eight years. “The team we need to look at would be Valley View. I don't see a bunch of other teams that will be up there with us but you never know. You need seven strong runners and most schools don't have that.”
Heber's top returning runners include seniors Andrew Powell and Jorge Garcia, juniors Brock Ballard and Austin Schmidt, and sophomore Malachi Cannon. The Panthers take nine runners to state with seven capable of scoring. Seniors Zack McArthur and Devin Redding, and sophomore Jon Ogle have the potential to take one of the remaining spots.
Cresswell expects Powell and Ballard to step up as leaders in place of Jake Sanders, who is running for Harding University this season. “Andrew Powell and Brock Ballard are both capable of running in the Top 5. They both worked hard all summer. Andrew is the kind of guy that when he makes a goal he does anything possible to reach that goal and I think he wants to run a 15:45. That's a little bit faster than he ran last year and hopefully he will reach that goal,” said Cresswell.
Powell, who made a perfect score of 36 on the ACT, averaged around 17:00 as a junior. “We are definitely looking to win state,” said Powell. “It's going to take some work in cross country but we can do it. I am looking to cut my time down some partially just so I can have a chance to keep up the tradition and win state. It's my senior year now so why not go hard?”
Powell has an extremely bright future as a student-athlete in college. With nearly every option imaginable, he lists Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana, Saint Louis University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana as some of his top choices for higher education. The option to run cross country will likely be a major factor.
“One of the criteria I am looking for is a Division 1 cross country team. Running is a big deal. It's a big part of my life so I don't want to give that up,” said Powell. “The only problem with places Rose-Hulman is they are Division 3 and MIT doesn't even have a team. If I were to go to a place like that I would have to duel enroll with another college to add the cross country aspect.
Page 2 of 2 - “It's not a guarantee at a lot of the places I am looking. The middle 50 percent at MIT score between a 33 and 35 [on ACT]. So, even getting a 36 it's not a guarantee they will accept me,” Powell said with laughter. “I will still have to work for that one but I am confident things will work out [with college].”
The Lady Panthers have also been working hard this summer, according to Coach Johnette Goldman. The girls' team returns its top two runners, juniors Madi Fires and Mary Simmons. Fires, who is also competing for Heber's volleyball team this fall, won the state championship as an individual last season as a sophomore.
“Grace Bodron, Madi Fires, Amanda Matthews, Hannah Mangum, Adrianna Simmons and Mary Simmons have all been working this summer with goals of having a great cross country season. And of course, the same for the boys,” said Goldman.
“We also have many younger athletes that are a part of cross country that want to become competitive. Courtney Kendall and Stephanie Music are a couple of our freshmen that will continue to improve and move up for us. Though the quantity might look doubtful, the quality is not.”
Goldman continued, “And, when you add in the heart that the leaders have, it will be fun to watch the season unfold. Madi was 4A state champion and Mary was also an All-Stater. All of these girls (and the guys) are determined to improve and make their mark at Oaklawn on November 10th.”
Goldman said the teams have put many hours of work into keeping their dreams alive. “Cross country begins for us as soon as school ends and each season we have hopes for a successful state meet. You never know if it will happen, but the dream stays in our mind and hearts for months. There are some great kids on these teams, girls and guys, in all areas of their life, so Coach Cresswell and I both trust they will be rewarded for their efforts this season.”
During the summer, Goldman and Cresswell took some of the younger team members to Harding University in Searcy for a running clinic. Sarah Archer, Ali Jones, Courtney Kendall, Madison Robertson, Adrianna Simmons and Ashley Smith attended the clinic, while the boys sent several junior high runners, including Joseph Baggett, Lane Carter, Ethan Hackworth, Evan Hackworth, Patrick Hill, Seth Jenkins and Gregory Simmons.
Heber opens its season with the Josh Park Memorial, which is set for Tuesday, Sept. 11. The first of four junior and senior high races begins at 4:30 p.m. at Dam Site Park in Heber Springs.