Heber Springs measures its success in state championships. The dynamic cross country program has won 11 state titles since 2004 more than any other school in Arkansas during that span.

Heber Springs measures its success in state championships. The dynamic cross country program has won 11 state titles since 2004 ¬ more than any other school in Arkansas during that span.

The girls own six titles, including the past two, while the boys have run down five, claiming the crown in each even year dating back to 2004.

Although coaches Johnette Goldman and Dale Cresswell are cautiously optimistic coming into the season, it would be no surprise to see Heber rise to the top once again.

The Lady Panthers lost their top two runners from the past two championship teams as Mary Simmons and Madi Fires graduated, but they return several girls who aided the title run.

Sophomores Grace Lehfeldt and Ashley Patchell are back along with senior Adrianna Simmons and junior Korl Cusick. They all scored points for the Lady Panthers in the state meet, plus the Lady Panthers received a big boost when track and field distance standout Millie Wilson decided to run cross country. Freshman sensation Ali Jones moves up from the junior high team, giving Heber a solid core group of runners.

“Each season one has to have hope that individuals and/or the team can have success at the state meet,” said Goldman. “We don't know what November 8th has in store for us, but we have had kids working this summer to try to make it happen again.  

“No question we lost some hoss (runners) to graduation, but those left behind have been working all summer to try for it again. Returning runners are Sarah Archer, Korl Cusick, Erin Holland, Grace Lehfeldt, Hannah Mangum, Ashley Patchell and Adrianna Simmons. We are excited that Millie Wilson is going to give cross country a chance,” added Goldman.

Goldman said the team has prepared all summer for the rigorous races, starting with the annual Josh Park Memorial Race on Tuesday, Sept. 9 at Dam Site Park in Heber.
The freshmen are getting acclimated to the longer races by participating in the off-season program.

“We are very pleased that freshmen Ali Jones, Ashlee Moore and Hailey Southerland have been working hard, as well, this summer. The boys and girls from seventh to 12th [grade] have met to run and lift together three times a week and some attended the Harding's Run Right Clinic in June. We hope for a good season. We will open up with the Josh Park Memorial. That will be the first test,” added Goldman.

The Panthers lost catalyst Brock Ballard, who signed to run at the University of Memphis, but return talented senior Malachi Cannon along with steady senior Jonathan Ogle and junior Patrick Hill.

“Malachi is going to need carry the load and be a leader for the rest of the pack,” said Creswell. “Malachi is going to be a good hard worker for the rest of them to look at. Patrick is one of the leaders and he has been on the tenth graders that we have.”

Sophomore Jesse Applewhite is also expected to help the Panthers in their quest for a sixth state title this decade. “Jesse had a good junior high year year last year so he should help out and Peyton Vowels will be a good one to bring up,” said Cresswell. “Ninth graders we have Lane Carter and Max Schroeder and they will be good.”

Cresswell said Berryville and Shiloh Christian, which moved back down from 5A, are the teams to beat in order to get back on top again.

“This year we are going to be young but we still have some good runners. We will be in the top 3 hopefully,” said Cresswell. “Berryville and Shiloh Christian always have good runners.”

After finishing runner-up last year falling four points shy of Maumelle, which moved up to 5A, it should be interesting to see how the Panthers fare. “You never know. It’s going to be something different this year but I think we will be okay.”

Hard work is a staple of the Panthers’ strenuous off-season program. “Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the summer we come up here and run for time. We started off at 30 and 45 minutes for the more seasoned runners and the younger ones started out at 15-20 minutes and we ended up going over an hour.

“We have been running distances, doing some weight workouts and things like that. We’ve gone to some different places in town. We go to Josh Park, Spring Park, JFK and a couple of times we’ve run from the school and picked them up. We try not to stay around here too much,” added Cresswell.

Nine runners advance to state, where the top seven are counted in the final standings. The fifth place runner is usually the deciding factor in close races.

“We have a solid seven runners at least,” said Cresswell. “Most cross country meets are won with your fifth runner. The first and second runners help, but we won one year over Shiloh Christian by one point because the fifth runner beat theirs. Last year we lost by four [to Maumelle] and it was the fifth runner.”