Wednesday, December 23, 2015

SPORT STORY >> Henderson’s Gold is Leader’s top 2015 story

Leader sportswriter

Another year has passed and what a year 2015 was for sports in The Leader coverage area. Championships were won and lost, and records were broken on both the local and national level.

Track and field was the sport that saw the most accomplishments for our local athletes, but the accomplishments this year came in a wide variety of sports and certainly more good things can be expected from our local teams and athletes in 2016.

Before the New Year arrives, it’s only appropriate to look back at the year’s accomplishments, and with that, here’s The Leader’s top five sports stories of 2015, and other noteworthy accomplishments and accolades to go with them.

• Jeff Henderson takes gold at the Pan Am Games.

Henderson, a McAlmont native and 2007 Sylvan Hills High School graduate, became the first American since Carl Lewis in 1987 to win the long jump at the Pan Am Games in Toronto in late July.

Henderson’s gold medal jump at the Pan Am Games was a world best 8.52 meters and he’s currently the No. 1 ranked long jumper in the world.

Henderson recently signed a three-year deal with Adidas and is currently training full time at the Olympic athlete training facility in Chula Vista, Calif., which is just outside San Diego.

The 26-year-old Henderson is training for the upcoming USA championships and hopes to qualify for next year’s summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Just having a chance to qualify for the Olympic Games is noteworthy enough, but if that happens, Henderson has a legitimate shot to bring home a gold medal.

Henderson’s ultimate goal is to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games, but his gold medal at the Pan Am Games earned him the top spot on this list.

• Weeks twins set national pole vault records. 

Lexi and Tori Weeks, the most decorated track and field athletes in Cabot High School history, each broke national pole vault records this year. Lexi was the first to break a record on the national level.

She broke the indoor record on Feb. 21 with a vault of 14-feet, 3 1/4 inches. In June, her sister Tori cleared 14-feet, 4 inches to set the new and current indoor record.

On July 4, Lexi broke the national outdoor record with a vault of 14-feet, 7 1/2 inches.

In addition to each holding national pole vault records, the 2015 CHS graduates each hold a plethora of school and state track and field records, not just in the pole vault.

Their versatility showed in the 2015 Heptathlon in May, where they finished first and second, respectively, and it was the closest finish in the state’s history of the Heptathlon. Only a point separated them. Lexi won the event with 4,481 points and Tori finished second with 4,480.

Lexi was also named the Gatorade National Player of the Year for girls’ track and field. The record-breaking twins are currently in their freshmen year at the University of Arkansas, where they’re both members of the Razorbacks track and field team – the most prestigious NCAA track and field program in the country.

• Destiny Nunez first female to win a state wrestling championship in Arkansas.
In late February, Beebe High School’s Nunez became the first girl to win a state wrestling championship in Arkansas history, and she’s only the fourth female wrestler nationwide to win a state championship. 

She entered the 2015 state tournament at UALR’s Jack Stephens Center as the No. 3 seed in the 106-pound weight class and claimed the state championship by winning a 5-2 decision over top-seeded Aiden Menchana of Maumelle.

Nunez finished fourth in the state tournament as a freshman, and earned the bronze medal at the 2014 state championships as a sophomore before claiming the state championship as a junior. The senior Badger’s goal for her senior year is to repeat as state champion.

• Beebe’s Trip Smith breaks school’s career rushing record. 

Another Badger makes the list, and deservedly so. Smith, a senior at BHS, broke the school’s career rushing record in the Badgers’ week-eight win at J.A. Fair on Oct. 23. Going into that game, Smith needed 69 yards to surpass previous record-holder Nic Bradley’s career mark of 4,640 rushing yards set in 1995.

Smith got 104 yards in that 42-6 win over the War Eagles to become the school’s new record-holder. Smith finished his 31-game career at BHS with 5,108 rushing yards.

• Mike Malham inducted into Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. 

Coach Malham, who just completed his 35th season as the head coach at Cabot High School, was honored for his coaching achievements in late February by being inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Malham is one of the most successful coaches in Arkansas high school sports history. In his 35 years heading the Panthers, Malham has compiled an impressive record of 284-115-4, and is the third-winningest coach in the state’s high school football history.

Under Malham’s lead, Cabot has won two state championships (1983, 2000) and has finished as state runner-up three times, with the last coming in 2013. Malham led Cabot to another successful season in 2015, where the team finished the regular season with a perfect 10-0 record and outright conference championship.

Honorable mentions:

There were many other noteworthy accomplishments by local teams and athletes, but only five could make the list. Here are some other accomplishments that deserve recognition.

The Cabot High School softball team advanced to its first ever state championship game in May. The Lady Panthers finished the regular season as conference champions before eventually falling to North Little Rock in the state championship game.

In the regular season, the Lady Panthers went 2-0 against the three-time defending state champion Lady Charging Wildcats, but it’s hard to beat a team of that caliber three times in one season, and the Lady Cats’ big-game experience showed in that final game.

The Cabot softball team could very well be back at Bogle in 2016, though, as the Lady Panthers return the majority of those players that now have championship game experience.

Baseball has also been solid in the tri-county area. Jacksonville finished last season as the outright 5A-Central Conference champion with an undefeated conference record, and three local athletes from three different schools have either signed or committed to play baseball for the Razorbacks once their high school careers end.

Beebe senior submarine pitcher Angus Denton has already signed with the state school, and junior center fielders Evan Hooper of Cabot and Casey Martin of Lonoke have committed to play for the Hogs in 2017.

In archery, Cabot South eighth grader Kayla Jones finished first overall out of 720 girls in her age group at the National Archery Schools Program National Tournament in Louisville, Ky., in May.

Lonoke junior swimmer Kayla McGee won a state championship in the 100-yard breaststroke earlier this year with a time of 1:06.49. McGee was a sophomore when she won the state title last spring, and will be one to watch over the next two years.

Speaking of state champions, the Cabot High School boys’ bowling team finished last season by winning its fourth consecutive state championship.

Back to track and field, Jordan McNair, now a senior at Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School, won his third consecutive Class 1A state championship in the 100-yard dash during the spring semester.

Connor Patrom of Beebe also won a track and field state championship this year. His came in the long jump event at the Class 5A state meet, and Lonoke’s Justin Meadows won a state championship in the triple jump at the Class 4A meet.

The Cabot High School girls’ team finished runner-up at the Class 7A state track and field meet in May, losing to Bentonville by half a point in the team standings. It was the closest finish to a state track meet in Arkansas history.

Bentonville’s team had much greater numbers than Cabot’s, which is what ultimately made the difference in that outcome. Cabot, who was clearly the most talented team at the state championship meet, got revenge at the Meet of Champs shortly after, beating Bentonville for the top spot by the score of 92-46.

Three standouts from that Lady Panther track and field team are now members of the University of Arkansas track and field team. In addition to the Weeks twins, standout distance runner Micah Huckabee is a freshman Razorback.

When Huckabee graduated from Cabot in May, she did so with multiple state championships and school records, and as one of only three Arkansas high school female athletes to ever break five minutes in the mile.