Heber Springs' cross country program has its sight set on two more Class 4A state championships this fall. The boys and girls swept last year's meet at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and both have several key runners returning for a shot at another title run.
The Panthers lost their top two runners from state last year, Jorge Garcia and Andrew Powell, but return a plethora of talented runners, led by seniors Brock Ballard and Austin Schmidt. Ballard placed sixth in last year's state meet with a time of 18:11.2 and Schmidt finished eighth (18:17.1)
Sophomore Hunter Drexler, who placed 14th, transferred to Clinton but Heber still has a good nucleus of distance runners with sophomore Patrick Hill and junior Malachi Cannon. Hill placed 15th in last year's state meet with a time of 18:52.9, just ahead of Cannon, who finished 16th (18:54.1).
Heber's boys are in the running for their third state title since 2010. “I am not going to come out and say we are going to win it, but I think there is a good chance,” said Panther Coach Dale Cresswell, who won the past three Class 4A Track and Field Coach of the Year awards presented by the Arkansas Activities Association.
Pea Ridge, which placed third as a team and returns two runners that placed in the top 15 at state, could push the Panthers this season.
Heber's boys have captured two Triple Crowns in a span of three years ¬ an unprecedented feat in the state of Arkansas regardless of classification. Losing dynamic athletes Clint Ligon, who signed to run track at ASU, and Ethan Bly, who signed to run track at UCA, could slow Heber in its chances for another indoor and outdoor championship.
Bly ran away with the high point honors by amassing 40.5 points in last year's state meet, while Ligon took top honors as a junior with 46 points.
Cresswell said repeating as state champion in cross country will be the easiest task. “I think it will be easier for cross country than any of the three,” said Cresswell. “After winning the Triple Crown last year it would be nice to do that again but right now we are just going to see what we have and I think we will have a good chance to be in the top three at least in indoor and cross country. Our outdoor season is probably going to be the hardest one out of the bunch. It's kinda hard after you lose two kids [Ligon and Bly] who are capable of scoring 80 points in a track meet. It's hard to replace that.”
Hill, Ballard and Cannon have been working hard this summer. “Patrick Hill worked real hard with us, Brock Ballard did a lot on his own and Malachi Cannon did a lot on his own,” said Cresswell. “Patrick came just about every day. He ran with us but not only did he do that but he rode his bicycle down to practice and he lives at Mountain Aire. It takes a pretty good ride on a bicycle to get down here.”
Page 2 of 2 - Senior Madi Fires, who placed runner-up individually at state last season with a time of 20:45.7, leads the Lady Panthers' cross country program. Fires won state as a sophomore. Senior Mary Simmons took third at state with a mark of 21:15.4, giving Heber two of the top three returning runners in Class 4A.
Sophomore Courtney Kendall (19th, 23:12), senior Amanda Matthews (21st, 13:17.7), sophomore Stephanie Music (27th, 23:47.9) and juniors Hannah Mangum (28th, 23:51.6) and Adrianna Simmons (35th, 24:14.8) also had a solid showing at state last season, giving the Lady Panthers high hopes coming into the season.
Pea Ridge finished runner-up last season 12 points behind Heber and the Lady Blackhawks also return some key runners.