Wednesday, August 09, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Beebe ladies under experienced leader

Leader sports editor

There’s a new person in charge of the Lady Badger volleyball program, and she comes from the most competitive and advanced part of the state for the sport. Audra Huggins takes over for Ashley Jackson, who left after four years at Beebe to take the same position at Class 6A Russellville.

Jackson helped build a fledgling Beebe program into one of the top programs in central Arkansas, and into a team that could stay competitive with the beasts of the East.

Huggins hails from Arkansas’ volleyball epicenter in northeast Arkansas, and hopes to take the Beebe program to that level.

In Class 5A, the East Conference has dominated. The last two years, all four state semifinal teams have been the four East Conference representatives, which means no East team has lost a state tournament game to a non-East team since 2014.

Huggins graduated from Nettleton and went to Williams Baptist College on a volleyball scholarship. She most recently coached at Greene County Tech, but gave that up in 2012 after eight years to devote time to family health issues.

“I took a stint off because my mother had a double lung transplant and my daughter has congenital heart issues,” Huggins said. “She’s had three heart surgeries. She’s 10-years old now and she’s doing great. Her right ventricle will always be underdeveloped but she even plays volleyball some now. Mom is a year out of transplant and also doing well.”

Huggins left prep volleyball coaching, but she maintained her skills clinic and did a lot of one-on-one training with several area athletes.

She also coached club volleyball, which is huge in the northeast part of the state.

“I missed the interaction with the students,” Huggins said. “It’s about the relationships you build more than the wins and losses. I’ve been to weddings, held babies, and watched them get to med school. So it adds a purpose to my life and even my family, because they’re immersed in it as well.”

While Huggins is aware of the East’s dominance, she likes the group she’s been working with since early July.

There’s pretty good athleticism on this team,” Huggins said. “The girls are hard workers. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. They’re good kids and you can’t overestimate that. There’s nobody extremely tall, so we’re not going to overwhelm anyone. We’re going to have to have good ball control and that’s what we’re working on the most.”

Two years ago, Beebe had a record-breaking season, earning the most wins in school history with 22, the first outright conference championship and the first undefeated conference record at 13-0.

That team graduated nearly everyone, and the Lady Badgers spent last year with an all-new cast trying to rebuild. This year’s team has several returning varsity players, and expects to be better.

Junior Reaven Seymore is the team’s most naturally athletic player.

“She’s going to be what I would call the firecracker,” Huggins said. “She’s the one that has the potential to light up the floor. She’s probably about 5-9 or 5-10, but she jumps really well. I’ve got her playing all the way around right now because she’s so athletic. But she’s also one that’s very cool under the lid, and that’s a big plus. When it gets intense, volleyball is such a mental game.”

Senior Lanie Wolfe was one of the team’s top players last year. Also about 5-9, Wolfe played middle last season, but could go outside this year.

“She’s pretty versatile as well,” Huggins said. “She could also go all the way and very much has that poker face, too. She’s very competitive and has a really fast arm swing. I look for her to be one of the leading contributors.”

Senior Autumn O’Rourke played well on the right side during Beebe’s team camps this summer. Another one that stands in the 5-foot-9 range, she will be big on defense.

“She does a nice job of handling the ball and putting up a big block,” Huggins said. “She did a great job at camp.”

Junior Brianna Duncan will be, perhaps, the team’s most versatile player.

“She is one of those silent leaders on the floor,” Huggins said. “She’s always doing what she’s supposed to and following instructions. Just real steady. I could use her on the front because she jumps really well, despite being small. She’s got good ball control. She can pass, she can set. She’ll just be a great utility player for us.”

Huggins also likes Duncan’s work ethic.

“I know she puts in extra work because I see her going to the track to run when practice is over and stuff like that. She’s the kind of leader that’s a doer. She’s one that’s going to make a difference in a game when others aren’t expecting it.”

Junior Farren Wilson will be a key middle blocker as well, as will junior Lexi Devore.

Three sophomores and a freshman will also likely see plenty of playing time. McKayla Lawrence, says Huggins, has the potential to contribute anywhere in the rotation.

Bailey May will get time as a defensive specialist and setter. Lillian Boyce will also play on the back row.

Huggins is moving up a freshman to handle much of the setter duties, something rarely done at the varsity level.

“Layla Wilson is going to set and play outside or right side,” Huggins said. “She does a good job with her hands and throws out a nice ball.”

The Lady Badgers open the season on Aug. 22 at Sylvan Hills. The home opener will be Aug. 24 against Little Rock Christian Academy.