The year 2013 in Faulkner County sports was highlighted by a long-awaited beginning, a sudden ending and a surprise finish.
There was also an amazing individual national championship exploit.
All this led to an unexpected development as far as evaluating the top stories.
Any of the top four could have made the list in any given year.
For most of the year, the revival of Hendrix football, with their first team in 53 years, seemed primed for the top spot. Suddenly in December, Clint Conque resigned as University of Central Arkansas football coach after 14 seasons. In a quick coaching search, Dr. Brad Teague, UCA director of athletics, hired Steve Campbell to take the reins.
Those football stories, involving two different institutions and on different ends of the spectrum, were impossible to separate for their different levels of clout.
So, we have a tie.
The Hendrix football season and the UCA coaching change share No. 1 billing as the top sports stories of 2013 in Faulkner County.
Those developments overshadowed an amazing baseball season by UCA and a national championship performance by Hendrix’s Elizabeth Krug.
Here is this reporter’s rankings for 2013. And we couldn’t stop at just 10. There are a dozen plus change.
1. HENDRIX FOOTBALL: The revival had been several years in the making and created a new excitement on the Hendrix campus as the Warriors came out with a new team in a new stadium with state-of-the-art locker room facilities for NCAA Division III play and won their first game with a last-second field goal. Under head coach Buck Buchanan, the Warriors, who weren’t together as a team until Aug. 14, finished 3-7.
That’s not impressive until you put the effort into perspective. Thirty Division III (non-athletic scholarship) programs have begun football since 1991. Only three won more games in their first season than Hendrix. Only six others had as many victories.
1A: EXIT CONQUE, ENTER CAMPBELL: It was not unusual for Conque to be a candidate elsewhere. It came as a surprise that the winningest coach in school history, citing the challenge of a fresh start and the resources to give more money to his assistant coaches, became the head coach at Southland Conference rival Stephen F. Austin. He left UCA with 105 victories. Teague took just five days to hire Campbell, a 24-year coaching veteran who has led teams to national titles at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and Delta State. In rapid-fire fashion, one era ended and another began.
3. UCA BASEBALL: The Bears gave an indication of their potential when they won two of three at Mississippi State early in the season in addition to wins of Wichita State and Kansas. They hit a midseason swoon and barely made the SLC tourney field. They got hot at the right time, coming out of the losers bracket to win five straight games to win the tournament, securing the automatic bid to an NCAA Regional.
That took them again to Mississippi State at Starkville, splitting with the Bulldogs, then came out of the losers bracket before losing the rubber game to Mississippi State and falling a game short of a Super Regional. Mississippi State went on to become the national runner-up. Only UCLA and UCA defeated the Bulldogs outside of the Southeastern Conference.
4. A CHAMPION: Hendrix junior Elizabeth Krug, one of the best athletes in school history, won the NCAA Division III title in the heptathlon with one of the greatest second-day comebacks in history. It was Hendrix’s first national championship after more than two decades in Division III.
5. UCA VOLLEYBALL: The Sugar Bears had an undefeated run in winning both the SLC regular-season and tournament titles, rarely having a three-set match. They earned the school’s second straight trip to the NCAA tournament, losing to Purdue in the first round.
6. UCA FOOTBALL: After high preseason rankings and high hopes, UCA lost a close game to Colorado, then were derailed by an incredible series of season-ending injuries, including quarterback Wynrick Smothers. The Bears rallied to salvage a 7-5 season. capped by a victory over two-time defending national runner-up Sam Houston State in what would be Conque’s final game leading the Bears.
7. HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL: St. Joseph won the school’s first 2A state title. Mayflower, which had one of the greatest seasons of any athletic team in school history, just missed, losing only to St. Joseph before postseason play and losing an 11-inning game to Fordyce in the 3A semifinals.
8. VILONIA TRACK: The Eagles scored in almost every event in winning their second straight 5A boys state championship.
9. WILLIAMSON RESIGNS: In early summer, Corliss Williamson suddenly resigned as UCA men’s basketball coach to become an assistant with the Sacramento Kings, where he spent much of his NBA career.
10. GREENBRIER SOFTBALL: The Lady Panthers (25-3) reached at least the state semifinals for the fifth straight year, losing 1-0 to White Hall in the 5A state title game.
11. CONWAY FOOTBALL: The Wampus Cats lost only three times in football, two to 7A state finalists Cabot and Bentonville. The Cats reached the semifinals for the first time under coach Clint Ashcraft, losing 21-14 to eventual state champion Bentonville
12. HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL: St. Joseph’s boys, Vilonia’s girls, Mount Vernon-Enola’s girls and Guy-Perkins girls all had successful regular-seasons and entered the postseason with a lot of momentum but fell short of gaining state championship games.
HONORABLE MENTION: Conway hosted the high school all-star games for the first time in a decade, drawing many positive reviews for the way city and UCA officials handled the week ... Three county athletic directors received high honors for their program’s success — Greenbrier’s Stephen Wood (Athletic Director of the Year; Conway Christian’s Michael Carter, 2A Athletic Director of the Year and Conway’s Buzz Bolding (Arkansas High School Athletic Director’s Association Hall of Fame) ... Young golfers Casey Ott and Whit Parker had highly successful summer seasons ... Conway's girls swim team won a state championship, its first in 25 years ... Chris Kordsmeier, St. Joseph’s girls basketball coach, won his 500th game at the school ... Conway’s Ken Stephens, Vilonia’s Don Campbell and St. Joseph’s Stephanie Strack Mathis were all selected for induction in 2014 into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)