The Heber Springs Lady Panthers have won four consecutive 2-4A Conference championships while compiling a league record of 49-14 and overall record of 95-28 under Coach Jamey Riddle, who is entering his 11th season at the school and ninth as girls' basketball head coach.

The Heber Springs Lady Panthers have won four consecutive 2-4A Conference championships while compiling a league record of 49-14 and overall record of 95-28 under Coach Jamey Riddle, who is entering his 11th season at the school and ninth as girls’ basketball head coach.

Winning a fifth consecutive title appears to be a daunting task as the Lady Panthers replace four starters, including 2013 leading scorer Hannah Johnson and twin sister Skylar Johnson, who led the team in scoring the previous two seasons.

Heber has talent to place around returning senior starter Makenzie Martin and junior post player Alison Thomas, who contributed heavily to last year’s title team. Senior guard McKenzie Cresswell and junior guards Madeline Spanel and Abigail Herring also received significant playing time last season.

The 2-4A Conference enters a new cycle with Marianna-Lee and Clinton dropping out, and Estem, Riverview and CAC moving into the league.

Estem won the 3A state championship last season, Riverview advanced to the semifinals of the 3A state tournament and CAC fell in the 4A state championship game. Along with charter members Heber and Lonoke, which advanced to the 4A quarterfinals last year, the conference appears to be the toughest in the state by a wide margin.

“Our expectation is to keep doing what we have been doing with four conference championships in a row. Of course it’s a whole different team out there right now,” said Riddle. “We are trying to find ourselves … Who is going to be that scorer, who is going to be that tough defender and rebounder. They have really worked hard this summer trying to find that. I think there is a lot of potential but it’s going to be tough with the conference and a lot of new schools moving in. I feel like we have a pretty good team but this conference is brutal right now.”

Riddle said this bunch has displayed great fundamentals while competing in team camps at Southside Batesville, Pottsville and Morrilton, plus the current one at the Panther Den, where the Lady Panthers also held a Thursday night league earlier in the summer.

“They do a lot of things right,” said Riddle. “Fundamentally offensively and defensively they run the plays the correct way. Defensively they are not out of position a whole lot. As far as a weakness we’ve got to continue to handle the ball better, continue to work on our rebounding and shoot the ball better this year. I think our weaknesses have the potential to be a strength with Hailey Crowder in the middle, Thomas and Martin all can rebound.”

Herring has taken over for Skylar Johnson at point guard, while Spanel, sophomore Hannah Thomas and Cresswell are helping in the backcourt. Senior Adrianna Simmons is also gaining experience this summer. “Abigail is doing a good job handling the ball along with Hannah Thomas, Madeline Spanel, Adrianna Simmons … We’ve got a lot of potential and all those weaknesses could be settled throughout the preseason and maybe make those our strengths,” added Riddle.

The variety of summer camps against many larger schools has helped the Lady Panthers prepare for a ruthless schedule. “This summer for this group we wanted to get as many games as possible. Some of them saw a lot of playing time [last year], of course Martin is the only true [starter] coming back. McKenzie Cresswell has been out with her knee banged up but she will be back.”

Spanel appears to be one of the Lady Panthers top perimeter shooters. “Spanel’s shot has really come around and she is looking for her shot a lot more. She has gotten a lot stronger and I think that has really helped her shot.”

Herring is displaying the ability to handle the ball under pressure. “Last week we went to Morrilton and played North Little Rock, Vilonia, Huntsville and I felt like she handled every bit of pressure they threw at her. She is doing a good job of getting us into our offense.”

Martin, a three-year starter, has the tools to lead Heber in scoring and rebounding, while locking down the oppositions’ best slasher. “With her toughness Martin can be a great defender but it can get her in trouble sometimes. Sometimes she tries to do too much instead of just sitting down and guarding and containing.”

Thomas, who has height and can jump out of the gym, came on strong last season and Riddle hopes she continues to progress in the paint. Crowder and the versatile Martin can also help in the frontcourt.

“Alison is tall enough to where she can post up and she has done a good job with that,” said Riddle. “She is tall enough to where she can post up and athletic enough where the girls know they can lob it up to her.

“Hailey Crowder has really come on and done a fabulous job. She has a toughness about her with size inside and she has a nose for the basketball. She can really go get it and defensively she is strong enough to push the offense around a little bit and get position.”

Riddle hopes Martin and Thomas will pick up the scoring load, but says a number of players have the ability to break out on any given night.

“That is the beauty of this team. It could be several girls. Alison Thomas has the capability of doing it, Martin for sure we will need a consistent 10-15 points out of her night in and night out. And then Madeline Spanel can help out with scoring. You’ve got to get a consistent 4-6 points out of Cresswell, Hailey Crowder, Adrianna Simmons, Abigail … But we will probably rely pretty heavily on Madeline, Martin and Alison off some rebounds.”

Although a rebuilding year, Riddle always seems to make the best of a tough situation. It couldn’t get much tougher than this season with one returning starter and a conference full of potential state champions.