Friday, April 08, 2011

TOP STORY > >New deal keeps all operating for now

Leader staff writer

Little Rock Air Force Base will continue flying and training, even if a congressional financial fracas had caused a government shutdown.

TSgt. Juan Torres, a spokesman for the base, said Friday evening the base would have seen some limited disruptions, but that the mission would continue even in a shutdown.

Torres said about 500 to 600 civilians work on the base, and they would have been furloughed until the shutdown was resolved.

“They will come in to turn in electronic equipment like their Blackberrys and sign a statement that they understand that they will do no volunteer work for the government during the shutdown,” Torres said in the even of shutdown.

He said the civilian force would turn over anything they are working on to their military counterparts.

In a letter to military members from Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Roy, the senior leaders said, “We fully understand that a shutdown is extremely disruptive to our mission, to you and to your families.

“Therefore, the Air Force will continue to conduct activities in support of our national security—particularly urgent operational requirements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Japan and other immediate military needs.”

The shutdown would also mean that the Internal Revenue Service is closing and tax refund checks would be delayed. But the IRS still expects tax forms and payments to be mailed in by the end of business April 18.

Also many federal grants that cities and counties apply for to help fund local projects would be delayed or stopped.

However, Social Security checks will still be delivered and processed. Medicare will be mailed as usual. The federal school-lunch program for students will also remain funded. But small business loans won’t and neither will government-backed mortgages. That could delay some home closings and put buyers and sellers in limbo.

No passports will be processed during the shutdown, possibly causing headaches for local residents who have out-of-the country trips planned in the near future.

Torres explained that financially the shutdown would impact all military members on the base, at least temporarily. “We get paid on the 15th and the first of every month. The 15th paycheck will only go through today (April 8),” he said, adding that when the stalemate is resolved military members will get back pay.

“We won’t be working for free,” he added.

The financial future is a little cloudier for the civilians. “Back in 1995 when the government shutdown,” Torres explained, “the civilian workers received back pay for the days missed, but there’s been no indication yet one way or the other this time.”

Larry Biernacki, president of the Arkansas Federal Credit Union, says its military members need to call the credit union if the government shutdown shorts their checks and puts them in a financial jam.

“It’s not fair to punish the men and women who serve our country when something like this happens and things are out of their control,” he said.

“Thousands of our members rely on a government paycheck to make their automatic loan payments, credit-card payments and more each month. We want those members to know we are willing to work out an arrangement on an individual basis if this shutdown interrupts their normal financial wellbeing,” Biernacki said.

According to information provided by the Department of Defense, if the shutdown is over by Tuesday, military accounting officials believe they can get members’ full pay into the April 15 checks. If not, the service will be looking at a special “catch-up” payday for the troops.

For DoD civilians, the April 15 check will be complete for most because of the way the pay period ends for civilians. For civilians that are directed to work, they will be paid retroactively, like the military, if the shutdown drags on. For those furloughed, Congress would have to pass special authority to pay them.

EDITORIAL >>Unanimous decision

Ordinarily, it is foolhardy to predict how seven justices will come down on any disputed question of law, but no one could have been the least surprised when the Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday struck down Initiated Act No. 1 of 2008, which forbade the state from letting cohabiting adults adopt children or serve as foster parents.

A group called the Arkansas Family Council had written the act and got it on the ballot in 2008 in the hope that it would prevent gay and lesbian couples from adopting children or serving as foster parents for children who had become wards of the state. Believing that it might make the act constitutional, the group threw in a proviso that heterosexual couples who were not married couldn’t adopt or be foster parents either. Voters approved it in the 2008 election.

Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, the law-and-order former prosecutor, held the act unconstitutional last year, and the Supreme Court, all elected by the people, unanimously upheld his decision. Even the two new justices, both elected last year with the support of conservative “family values” groups, joined the rest in striking down the act because it unconstitutionally required government agencies to invade the privacy of individuals and enforced the act’s authors’ narrow and unproven views of what was best for neglected children. Justice Karen Baker had defeated Judge Timothy Fox, whose decision in a similar case nine years ago enraged the Family Council, which worked hard for Baker. But she joined the rest of the court in striking down the law.

She had little choice, unless she wanted to flout established law, which conservative judges are loath to do. Ten years ago, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state’s 25-year-old sodomy law, which criminalized homosexual behavior. Bedroom behavior among adults was none of the government’s business, the court said. Both federal and state constitutions grant privacy to individuals from a prying government. In five elections since then, the voters have punished not one of the justices who rendered that decision, although the two justices who dissented on technical grounds have since left the court.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld Fox’s ruling in 2005, which overturned a state policy dictated by Governor Mike Huckabee that banned households with a gay adult in the house from serving as foster parents for neglected, abandoned and abused children. Privacy rights forbade such a policy, the court said.

So the Family Council decided to put that agency policy into a state law, thinking that it would have a stronger legal premise than the mere rules of a state agency, even if the governor dictated them.  But neither an agency’s rules or a legislative or initiated act overpowers the Constitution.
Justice Robert L. Brown spelled out both the law and the overwhelming common sense that governed the issue. The state Department of Human Service and the trial courts should be left alone to examine the circumstances of each case and determine what is in the best interest of a child who desperately needs a home, he said.

If the law tells the state agency or the courts that they cannot put a needy child into an unmarried couple’s custody, either by adoption or foster care, without first determining if there is sexual activity between the adults, that requires an impermissible invasion of the couple’s privacy.

The Family Council said its aim was not primarily to try to prevent a gay couple from adopting a child, but unmarried heterosexual couples. In either case, the Supreme Court said, those decisions must be left to those who are in the best position of determining the best available home for the child. A blanket denial of whole groups of people isn’t constitutional, and it is unfair to children who need a good home, even if it is not the world’s most perfect home.

The state has 1,600 children who are wards of the state and need homes. Striking down this mean act, however well intended its authors might have been, won’t give all of them good homes, but it will help many of them. That is what all of us should want.

One of the plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, was a grandmother who wanted to adopt and rear her grandchild in Oklahoma who had been severely abused by her parents. The state had removed the child from the home after it was discovered that the parents had broken the infant’s ribs. No other relative wanted to raise the child but she and her partner did. But because she was in a lesbian relationship, the law forbade it.

The Family Council’s director said they would next draft an amendment to the state Constitution legalizing such bans, putting them out of reach of the Arkansas courts. But that will lead only to still more futile litigation. The Arkansas Constitution’s rights have been based on the federal Bill of Rights since 1868. It will mean that an appointed federal judge instead of Arkansas’ elected judges will strike down the law based on the federal Bill of Rights.

Bigotry is persistent.

TOP STORY > >Jacksonville welcomes Little Rock Expo Center

Leader staff writer

The Little Rock Expo Center has found a new permanent home in Jacksonville.

After nearly a year of successful monthly Memphis Flea Markets and other shows, the company decided that it wanted to make the old Walmart building its permanent location.

The signs went up earlier this week.

General manager Sandy Hembree said they considered calling the building the Jacksonville Expo Center, but “we are known throughout the region as the Little Rock Expo Center—we own that name—and we want all of our old shows and contacts to know that we are the same management and will put on the same great show for them as we did when we were located on I-30 west of the Little Rock city limits for 12 years.”

“We are very excited to have them no matter what name they use,” Mayor Gary Fletcher said.

The mayor, along with Jim Durham, the director of administration, both said that the expo is just one of many new businesses com ing into the city and doing well.

“We’ve had a number of new restaurants either open or are opening up,” Durham said. “We’ve got Cayenne Cajun Cuisine, the First Street CafĂ©, Feastro’s, and Firehouse Subs either opened up or breaking ground,” Durham said.

Fletcher added that the Crooked Hook is reopening under the tutelage of the original owners. “We’ve been planting economic-development seeds for two years. It just takes time,” Fletcher said.

Hembree’s group got to the point in their I-30 location where they were putting on shows 52 weekends out of 52 weekends a year. “There were some weekends where we had two or three different shows going,” she said.

But the building that housed the expo was sold to Pulaski Technical College and became their south campus.

The sale put the flea market and the expo shows into hiatus for five years while they searched for just the right location. Last spring they came to Jacksonville and tried out the old Walmart building and have been happy ever since.

“It is home to us now,” Hembree said, and the shows are coming in.

This weekend is both the Memphis Flea Market and Duck Duck Goose. The flea market continues to be strong and solid. “ If it wasn’t doing great, we wouldn’t be getting vendors in this weekend from Chicago, Branson, Kansas and Texas,” she said.

The flea market will continue to be a monthly event on the second weekend of each month. It will feature a hunter’s expo in August, an antiques auction, car shows, more gun shows, liquidation sales and a concert.

Hembree said another reason for keeping the Little Rock Expo name was that “we wanted people not to think of us as something new, but as an old friend coming back, and besides it’s hard to advertise that we are in the old Walmart building; it has no pizzazz.

“We hope to build up to being as big as we were when we were on I-30,” she said.

The new Little Rock Expo Center, formerly known as the old Walmart building, has 125,000 square feet of usable space under air and heat. “We can accommodate just about any event here,” Hembree said.

The mayor, who tries hard not to miss any flea markets or events in the now Little Rock Expo Center, said it does him good to visit the different out-of-state vendors. “They always brag on how wonderful our city and our people are and how they enjoy their time with us,” he said.

TOP STORY > >Council spends money on trash

Leader staff writer

It took the Jacksonville City Council about 20 minutes Thursday night to spend more than $1.3 million.

The council approved purchasing an automated garbage- collection system for slightly more than $1 million and two new ambulances at about $150,000 each.

The council voted to spend $1.3 million with RiverCity Freightliner to purchase a complete, automated garbage-collection system.

The system includes three garbage trucks at a total cost of about $600,000; two knuckle-boom or trash trucks at a total cost of about $244,220; 8,800 96-gallon trash containers at a total cost near $444,000, and 200 48-gallon trash containers at a cost of about $9,000.

The containers should be in by the middle of May and the trucks about a month later.

RiverCity was not the low bidder. The council rejected two lower bids, Otto Environmental at $402,884 as the price did not include the trucks, and RiverCity Mack at $1.2 million because it did not meet the specifications.

The city will get a short term, 60-month loan to pay for the new system. The loan will be paid out of the recently approved increase in the city’s garbage rates. Rates, for most residents, went from $11 to $14.50 a month.

The council voted to spend $305,495 with Excellance Inc. to purchase two new ambulances even though the company was not the low bidder. The low bidder, Phoenix Group, at $277,530, did not meet all the specifications or requirements.

One of the ambulances will replace a 1997 model and the other will take over duties from a 2003 model. The 2003 ambulance will be placed in reserve in case of extreme emergencies or problems with the two new ambulances or the department’s 2008 model. Right now the department has no ambulance in reserve.

In other council business:

 The council voted to take a little more than an acre of land adjacent Graham Road through its eminent-domain powers. The land, actually three small lots owned by two different families, is needed to complete the planned widening of Graham Road. The widening project, partially funded with federal money through Metroplan, is expected to cost close to $6 million.

The city doesn’t get to just take the three parcels. The issue will go to court to determine a fair price for the former owners. But the taking of the land prevents, according to the resolution the aldermen passed, “possible loss of federal funding” and allows the project to proceed without a delay.

Two of the lots are owned by Walter and Dana Nixon and the other is owned by the Harry K. Dougherty Estate.

n Jim Oakley, the city’s public-works director, in his monthly report, said the animal shelter took in 118 dogs and 58 cats during March.

The shelter was able to return 31 dogs and three cats to their owners and adopt out another 55 dogs and 17 cats. Shelter officials had to euthanize 34 dogs and 17 cats because of illness, injury or space requirements.

There was one bite case reported. An owner was bitten on the forearm by her Lab mix as she tried to put the dog into the car. The dog was quarantined for 10 days as a safety precaution.

 In his monthly report, City Engineer Jay Whisker said his department issued 24 building permits and nine business licenses in March. The department performed 189 inspections and issued 30 letters to homeowners or businesses for unkempt or unsanitary conditions or structural problems.

 The council passed a resolution honoring Jacksonville High School basketball boach Victor Joyner and his squad of players for their outstanding performance this season. The council had invited the coach but he was working track and field practice and was unable to attend.

SPORTS>>New coach commits to NP girls

Leader sportswriter

Salami is good for North Pulaski athletics — no matter how you slice it.

The Lady Falcons have a new soccer coach in Rodney Salami, a former football and soccer standout at North Pulaski who graduated in 2005.

Salami is back after four years at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., where he earned his bachelor’s of science degree in biology before moving to New York for seven months. After leaving New York when a prospective career situation fell through, Salami took a civilian job in Kuwait as a transporter of truck and tank parts.

Salami returned to the Jacksonville area in mid-February, where he quickly accepted the job of preparing the Lady Falcons for spring soccer.

“When I finished college last year, they wanted me to coach the girls soccer team,” Salami said. “But I had taken a job in New York. That didn’t really play out like I thought it would.

“I think if I had worked with the girls last year, things would have been better off for this year.”

The Lady Falcons have provided plenty of clay for Salami to mold with a freshman-heavy roster.

Senior midfielder Stephanie Alvis anchors the team and provides experience and leadership, but a number of the underclassmen have never participated in athletics of any kind.

In his high-school days, Salami was a starting defensive tackle for the Falcons despite his speed and 5-10, 205-pound frame. His 40-yard dash time entering his senior year was a 4.5, and he did see some time at fullback.

Coaching the Lady Falcons is a volunteer job for Salami, who works as a personal trainer for Central Arkansas Fitness. Salami runs a fitness boot camp and holds classes in Lonoke, at the Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock and also works with military personnel.

Salami plans to return to school for his master’s degree in physical therapy while volunteering on the soccer field.

The Lady Falcons have been consistent postseason contenders despite frequent coaching changes over the years, but they are off to a 0-4 start this season. Salami guessed that close to three-fourths of this year’s team are freshman players.

As for Alvis and the other upperclassmen, Salami simply wants to offer a steady presence to a group that has had a new coach with the start of every season.

“They kind of get aggravated with that, because they don’t have just one steady coach,” Salami said. “Every year, it’s a new coach. You have to think, people have priorities to take care of.

“But you don’t want to just brush them off, because they’re a good group of girls. You want to teach them up and maybe give them some of the knowledge that you have, so they can retain it.”

SPORTS>>Bears find way to fill net, Clark lead team

Leader sportswriter

Goalkeeping dilemmas aside, the Sylvan Hills Bears picked up a 5A-Southeast Conference victory over 5A-Southeast Conference rival North Pulaski in an 8-3 shootout at Falcon Stadium on Tuesday.

Starting goalkeeper Devin Pearson, who is also the starting post player for the Bears’ basketball team, was away practicing for an all-star basketball game.

Backup David Johnson was also out for basketball reasons — a sprained ankle he suffered while playing in a pickup game at school earlier in the week. Johnson attempted to start but gave up an early goal to North Pulaski forward LeVander McGinnis because of his limited mobility.

That led the Bears to put Jake Norris in front of the goal. Norris gave up two second-half scores, but both came after the Bears had the game in hand.

“He did well,” Sylvan Hills coach Sam Persson said. “It’s not easy to come into a game 10 minutes in, especially being down a goal.”

Nate Clark led the scoring for Sylvan Hills with four goals, including his first to tie the game at the 30-minute mark of the first half.

Clark scored again on a corner kick five minutes later to put the Bears up 2-1.

Noah Peters closed out the half for the Bears with a breakaway goal that gave them a 3-1 lead heading into halftime.

Clark struck again to start the second half, giving the Bears a 4-1 lead.

But the Falcons made it close briefly with two straight goals but they scored on themselves thanks to a breakdown in the defensive backfield that gave Sylvan Hills a 5-3 lead.

A hat trick wasn’t enough for Clark, who scored his fourth and final goal midway through the second half.

“He is a tremendous athlete,” Persson said. “He started playing for us last year. He’s starting to have a good understanding of how to communicate with Jeremiah Persson.

“He’s so much faster than basically anybody we play against. Once he gets back behind a defense, they have a hard time stopping him.”

North Pulaski coach Raymond Cooper, who also doubles as the boys basketball coach, was not available for comment.

It is Cooper’s first year to serve as the Falcons’ soccer coach.

Forward Edwin Smith scored when the ball ricocheted off North Pulaski’s goalkeeper to set him up for the easy kick.

Midfielder Brandon Shermo set the final margin when he scored on a right-side breakaway in the final five minutes.

The Falcons controlled things early, including McGinnis’ early goal.

Trevor Lear had a chance to add to North Pulaski’s lead in the ninth minute with a corner-kick attempt, but Johnson finally secured the ball for Sylvan Hills to put an end to the scoring threat.

Jeremiah Persson got things headed in the Bears’ direction when he took a shot on goal from the left side in the 15th minute.

SPORTS>>Hits add up for Lady Falcons

Leader sportswriter

The North Pulaski Lady Falcons evened their season record with a 6-0 shutout over Pulaski Robinson at Dupree Park on Thursday.

The Lady Falcons (5-5) dominated the non-conference game with strong defense and a two-hitter from junior pitcher Brittany Bains. Offensively, North Pulaski scattered runs in the first, second and fifth innings and got 14 hits, seven in the first two innings, off Robinson pitcher Katherine Toler.

“I would like to have seen more runs,” North Pulaski coach Ann Tharp said. “That very last inning when we had the bases loaded, I was hoping we could bust that open, but we scored enough to win and played pretty good defense.”

Bains was working on a no-hitter through four innings before the Lady Senators’ Courtney McSpadden led off the top of the fifth with a double.

“She did great,” Tharp said of Bains. “We’re going to need her strong coming up in the next week, because we’ve got a big week next week.”

The Lady Falcons will play at Vilonia on Monday before hosting West Helena in a 5A-Southeast Conference doubleheader Tuesday.

The junior-varsity team will host Little Rock Hall in a doubleheader Wednesday, and the annual Jae Lynn Russell Memorial softball tournament begins Friday. The Lady Falcons will play Friday at 5:30.

Bains set the tone early by striking out the first two Robinson batters.

She walked No. 3 hitter Whitney Jarvis before inducing a popup from cleanup hitter Kayla McSpadden. Bains struck out 10 and walked four.

Junior outfielder Julie Mullen drove in the Lady Falcons’ first two runs when she singled to left center to score Kelsey Seats and Heather Fleshman.

Seats reached when she hit a fielder’s choice to shortstop that forced Alexis Hendricks at second, and Fleshman hit a tricky bloop single that took a curve and ended up directly behind Toler on the back side of the pitcher’s circle. That gave North Pulaski a 2-0 lead after one inning.

The Lady Falcons added to their lead in the second. Designated hitter Anna Langrell singled to shallow right and leadoff batter Casey Mullen hit a fly over shortstop before Hendricks loaded the bases on a walk.

Batting cleanup, Fleshman then drove in Langrell and Mullen with a hit down the first base line that curved right just after clearing the base fair.

Three straight singles led to the final two North Pulaski scores in the bottom of the fifth inning. Seats and Fleshman both singled to left, and another hit to left, this time a two-RBI smash by Kelsey Whitmore, scored both runners.

Langrell singled to left in the bottom of the sixth and advanced to third on singles by Mullen and Hendricks to load the bases with one out, but Langrell was thrown out at the plate when Seats grounded to third.

SPORTS>>RockHounds pummel Travelers behind grand slam

Leader sports editor

The Arkansas Travelers suffered a rocky start at the hands of the Midland RockHounds on Thursday.

Midland pounded Arkansas 10-2 before a paid crowd of 6,311 in the Texas League season opener at Citibank Ballpark in Midland. Michael Spina hit a tie-breaking grand slam in the fifth inning on his way to a 3-for-4 night while the RockHounds staff held the Travelers’ offense largely silent.

Arkansas managed just four singles and struck out 11 times against four Midland pitchers. Second baseman Ryan Mount got two hits and was the only Traveler with more than one.

Los Angeles Angels top prospect and Travelers center fielder Mike Trout was 0 for 3 in his Class AA and league debut.

“Expectations and goals and numbers, I don’t talk a whole lot about it,” first-year Travelers manager Bill Mosiello said. “You guys would think I’m crazy if I were to tell you what I really anticipate.

“I’m not going to talk about ‘Hey we’re going to win 80, 100 games’ because I’m not going to give up any games. When we lose a game we’ll go from there and if we lose another one we’ll go from there.”

Arkansas reliever Tim Kiely (0-1) pitched two innings and suffered the loss on opening day for the second year in a row.

With the score 2-2, the right-hander took the mound for what turned out to be the decisive fifth, and third baseman Luis Jimenez bobbled Tyler Ladendorf’s leadoff bouncer for an error.

Jermaine Mitchell singled to left field before Kiely got Grant Green to line out to right field. Shane Peterson drew a walk to load the bases for Spina, who was making his Class AA debut and crushed a first-pitch fastball for a line-drive grand slam to left field to give Midland a 6-2 lead.

Dan Sattler relieved in the seventh and surrendered four Midland runs on five base hits in just two innings.

The Travs scored a pair of unearned runs in the second inning off Midland starter Graham Godfrey.

Third baseman Stephen Parker threw wildly, pulling Spina off first base allowing Marvin Lowrance to reach to begin the inning. Mount hit a one-out single, and Angel Castillo walked to load the bases.

Alberto Rosario drove in Arkansas’ first run of the season with a sacrifice fly to bring Lowrence home.

Jay Brossman followed with a hit-and-run single through the right side to drive in Mount for a 2-0 lead.

Travs starter Garrett Richards was strong through three innings allowing just a single and a walk, but he struggled in the fourth as the first five Midland batters reached base.

Richards surrendered a leadoff homer to Green on a 2-0 pitch followed by a hard single by Peterson.

Losing the strike zone, Richards walked the next three batters including a walk to Jeremy Barfield with the bases loaded to force in the tying run.

Richards held it at 2-2 by getting Matt Sulentic on strikes then induced Petey Paramore to ground into a double play.

Richards lasted four innings, allowing two runs on three base hits and four walks along with four strikeouts.

Godfrey was charged with two runs on three hits, a walk and six strikeouts over four innings before running out of pitches.

He retired seven of the last eight batters he faced before turning the game to the ’Hounds bullpen.

Mickey Storey (1-0) threw two no-hit innings to earn the victory while Neil Wagner added two more shutout innings with one hit and three strikeouts.

Trey Barham pitched a scoreless ninth. Midland’s pitching staff retired 21 of the last 24 Travs hitters.

Arkansas and Midland, the Oakland Athletics affiliate that reached the Texas League Championship Series last year, were back in action at Citibank Ballpark on Friday night.

The Travelers have their home opener, also against Midland, on Thursday at Dickey-Stephens Park.

SPORTS>>Perssons gives Lady Bears boost

Leader sportswriter

The Sylvan Hills Lady Bears stayed unbeaten in 5A-Southeast Conference play with a 6-1 victory over rival North Pulaski at Falcon Stadium on Tuesday.

Freshman midfielder Abi Persson scored three goals for the Lady Bears (5-2, 3-0) while Naomi Gregory scored two. Freshman Cayln Fulton scored one goal for Sylvan Hills and was poised to add to the Lady Bears’ lead in the second half but narrowly missed three shots.

North Pulaski senior midfielder/forward Stephanie Alvis denied Sylvan Hills a shutout with a goal in the first half.

The teams are Pulaski County rivals but there were no examples of bad sportsmanship, Sylvan Hills coach Nate Persson said.

“What I appreciated was that the North Pulaski girls played hard and fair and had good attitudes the whole game,” Persson said. “That makes for a real fun evening. Even though it got lopsided, they never stopped.

“You appreciate when there’s no bad blood in a game. It’s good reflection on their coaches.”

Gregory scored the first goal for the Lady Bears in the seventh minute and Fulton scored at the 9:44 mark.

Gregory followed with her second goal in the 14th minute. Persson scored the first of her three goals midway through the first half to give the Lady Bears a comfortable 4-1 lead at halftime.

Persson kept up her intensity to start the second half and scored in the first five minutes. She completed her hat trick with a sweeping move in front of the goal and then Fulton became the primary scoring threat for the remainder.

Fulton had two late breakaways and took another mid-range shot, but two went over the goal and her final breakaway attempt went wide right by less than a foot.

“She usually scores at least two a game,” Persson said. “It’s amazing that she just couldn’t get it down. And then she felt a little pressure.

“She got bumped a couple of times. It was a little tough for her, but we had a lot of fun with it.”

The Lady Bears have put themselves in position to secure at least a No. 2 seed for the 5A state tournament next month.

The comfortable margin of victory allowed for the Lady Bears to attempt a few late experiments.

“We had the freedom to move players to positions they had never played before,” Persson said. “Sara Talley is a senior — she’s always played the back position, which is the sweeper, and I suggested her playing forward, because she has incredible speed.

“She grew into it; she kind of liked the experience.”

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Overhauling medical care

The Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives unveiled its budget blueprint for the future Tuesday and it explains with very little detail how the party plans to reduce the deficit over the next decade. You can’t address the deficit without addressing health-care costs.

Are you ready? They are going to turn Medicare into what they have been calling “Obamacare,” except without the protections for patients.

The central tenet of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009, the part that Republicans are trying to stop in the courts, is a requirement that most people who are not insured buy a policy from an insurance company, with the government’s assistance if their family incomes fall between 133 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line. They will select a plan that suits them from an exchange—a market set up by the federal government or by the state where competing insurance companies will offer a variety of plans for businesses and individuals to choose from. Arkansans will have to shop in the national exchange because Republican lawmakers in Arkansas last week blocked the creation of a state exchange.

So here is how the new Republican plan, outlined by Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, would reform Medicare and bring down the deficit: When people reach 65 or become disabled, they will have to buy a medical and hospitalization policy from an insurance company, with generous help from the government, particularly if you are poor.

Medicare will not be there for you. You will select your plan from a national exchange and your dealings will be with the insurance company. It turns medical care for the elderly over to, not the government but the insurance industry. The federal subsidy, which Ryan calls a voucher, will go directly to the insurance company, which will determine what kinds and levels of care are reimbursable. If medical costs keep rising, the brave new Republican government will not be a party. The elderly patient will have to find a way to deal with them.

In other words, “Obamacare” without its regulation of the insurance companies to prevent profiteering and abuse of consumers and without the government guarantee that you will be cared for.

It will never be described that way, of course. They have invested too much in the campaign to convince people that the new health-insurance law will turn health care over to the government and shift Medicare costs to patients to tell them now that they are going to do to them what they had said Obama was doing to them.

But Ryan and the House leadership are too clever to arouse the alarms of the great army of the elderly that they frightened into opposition to the health law in 2009. So the new, improved Medicare will not apply to people who are on Medicare now or those who are approaching Medicare eligibility. Only people who are now 54 or younger will go into the new privatized Medicare starting in 2021 when they land on the Medicare rolls.

If the new Medicare is beneficial and economical, why shouldn’t it apply to everyone and right away, not just those who face it far into the future?

The logic is obvious. People who are at the point in their lives that they are concerned about the looming costs of medical treatment in their golden years need not be concerned. The Medicare they love will be there for them.

Younger people? They don’t worry about such things now or when they vote. When it comes time for them to worry about such things, they probably will be more than happy to shoulder the burden of balancing the budget.

Also, the insurance industry likes it a lot: tens of millions of new customers, all hand-delivered to them and generously subsidized to assure good profits.

The House Republicans also have a plan for stopping the growing cost of Medicaid, which pays for nursing-home care for the aged and disabled, institutional care for disabled children and adults, medical care for poor children and, starting in 2014, insurance for very poor adults in states like Arkansas. They are going to turn Medicaid over to the states, give them a fixed block grant and let the governors and state legislatures decide who to boot out of nursing homes and children’s colonies and how many children will lose medical insurance or else which state taxes to raise.

Our new congressman, Tim Griffin—actually all four Arkansas congressmen—condemned “Obamacare” last year. We assume that all of them except Mike Ross, the nominal Democrat from South Arkansas, are obliged to vote for the Budget Committee reforms.

We eagerly anticipate their explaining it.

TOP STORY >> Mountain Springs goes private

Leader staff writer

Jack King, owner and general manager of Greystone Country Club in Cabot, announced this week that Mt. Springs golf course has gone private.

“As one of the finest championship golf courses in the state, this move will enhance Greystone and give our members the full benefits of membership in a private club,” King said in a press release that went out Tuesday. “Greystone invites you to join our club and enjoy playing this exclusive course.”

The change comes a little more than two months after it became public that the country club was struggling to stay open and in danger of defaulting on a $1.2 million loan with Metropolitan Bank and Trust.

King, who co-owns Greystone subdivision with Bill Minton, took over as manager from David McKinney.

King said during an interview on Tuesday that McKinney left of his own volition and that his departure was not part of a restructuring to keep the country club from going under.

“I couldn’t grovel enough to get him to stay,” King said. “He’s been with us since we started. He’s a great guy and a great manager and he will be missed.”

As for closing the golf course that fronts Highway 5 to non-members, King said it’s a move that members and residents should appreciate.

“Obviously, the people who live here will like it because it will make their property values go up,” he said. And the members will have a course they’re able to get on without having to fight the crowds.”

The Cypress Creek course will continue to be open to members as well as to the public, he said.

Greystone Country Club, which lost about 100 members in 2010, has always had members who lived outside the subdivision. Of the 250 or so members at the first of the year, only about half were residents of Greystone subdivision.

The Leader first reported in late January that the country club, which includes the two golf courses, was in danger of closing. Insiders said then that the country-club revenue fell short about $40,000 a month.

The problem, they said, was that many of Greystone’s residents could afford the payments on their homes in the city’s most exclusive neighborhood, but could not pay $225 for full membership in the country club.

The situation was a concern for city officials who said the negative economic impact to the city would be significant.

By early February, a committee of Greystone residents was holding meetings to alert their neighbors to the problem and to try to get them to join the country club. If the club went under, their property values would go down, the committee said.

The committee’s plan was to sign up enough new members to show the bank that Greystone Country Club was viable. If they could show that, they could also find a buyer for it, they reasoned.

But that plan fell through when they weren’t able to sign enough new members and King stepped in to try to save the floundering business.

“It’s going well,” King said Tuesday. “We’re still actively looking for a golf pro. We’ve got our eyes on a couple of really good guys.”

Members of the Mt. Springs course seem pleased that it is now private and the semi-private Cypress Creek is scheduling corporate outings, he said. To schedule, call 501 941-4441.

TOP STORY >> Clubhouse named for ex-alderman

Leader staff writer

To keep a secret from former Alderman Becki Vassar is like trying to move a mountain, nearly impossible. But that’s exactly what about 100 of her friends and city officials did Saturday.

The city council managed to approve a resolution Friday afternoon renaming the clubhouse at the city’s golf course after Vassar and arranged for a surprise roast and toast at the facility Saturday evening.

“I’m just speechless,” she said in awe and nearly in tears when she walked into the clubhouse thinking she was buying her daughter and granddaughter dinner there only to be met by a thunderous applause.

Vassar has considered saving the golf course as one of her greatest accomplishments in her 32 years on the council. “This is 106 acres of green space that we have saved for the use and enjoyment of future and present generations,” she said later in the evening.

“You really got me. This is all so wonderful,” she said, going from table to table hugging everyone she could.

“How long have you been planning this?” she asked Alderman Charlie Harmon.

“For months,” he said, adding that everything she did Saturday was orchestrated to keep her in the dark—and it almost fell apart 30 minutes before the surprise party.

Vassar’s daughter Lane West had taken her mom shopping at Hobby Lobby and JoAnn’s Fabric to keep her busy before the party. While out shopping, they bumped into a friend who had heard about the renaming and told Vassar she was excited about the good news. Just then, Lane hollered at her mom, “It’s over here, I found it, come quick,” to prevent her from finding out what the news was.

Then as the time arrived to head to the party, Vassar wasn’t quite through shopping, but Lane and Vassar’s granddaughter Paige made her get in the car.

“Where are we going?” Becki asked. “Don’t worry about it” was the reply and a short time later they pulled up to the clubhouse. “Do I need my purse?” Vassar asked. “Yes, you are buying us dinner,” Lane responded.

But dinner, cake and numerous stories were all on the crowd that showed up to honor Vassar for her work in obtaining the golf course.

Vassar was presented with a T-shirt signed by her friends that said “I’m retired, but I work part time as a pain in the butt.” She was also given an engraved silver serving tray.

Vassar, as the guest of honor, sat in a rocking chair on a small stage surrounded by knickknacks and memorabilia from her house. “How did you get all of my stuff?” she asked.

“We had Lane pilfer your house when you were gone on a trip,” Harmon said.

Harmon was one of many people who roasted and toasted Vassar. He recalled that he first met her when he was 16 and his car accidentally squealed its tires in front of her home. “I was only about 100 yards or so from my house, but in that short time she had already called my dad (former Mayor Bill Harmon) and I was grounded for a month. Yep, I knew her back then, but the B didn’t stand for Becki,” he quipped.

But when Harmon was elected to the council, he had two mentors—his dad and Vassar. “My dad said you were the person to listen to and to call first. In fact, Becki has told me numerous times, ‘You should have called me first.’”

Besides Harmon, other speakers included former aldermen Tom Brooks and Don Brown, golf pro Dawn Darter and friends Chris Jordan and Nan Gentry. Many others also came to the podium to make a toast or tell their favorite Becki story.

Bob Franks started off the night telling Becki that the group wanted to do something special for her for her 32 years of city service, plus her dedication to saving the golf course.

“The committee and everyone else thought long and hard. We wanted to give you a house on the golf course, but you’ve got that already. We wanted to get you a Mercedes, but you got one already. Then how about a golf cart, nope, got lots of them. So we got you a card and what is in the silver box,” Franks explained.

The musical card played, “Simply the Best,” and the present in the silver box was the silver serving tray.

Even though all the roasts were in fun and the toasts were a plenty for the veteran city council member, she was reminded that not everyone knows who she is. Vassar was the grand marshall for the 2010 Christmas parade and the professionally done sign on the vehicle carrying the waving Vassar through the streets spelled her name “Vassasr.”

Brooks called Vassar a true friend. “We go back a long ways. In fact we were elected to the council the same year, 1979, but I always remind you, Becki, that I am the younger.”

Brooks said that often they were on the same side of a political issue and sometimes on different sides. “But we always were able to work together and remain friends even when we were 180 percent opposite politically, even though Becki would say she was on the right side,” he said.

Darter, who grew up on the golf course from the age of 5, said, “No one deserves this night more than Becki.”

Brown told how he got great advice from Vassar when he was elected to the council. She told him, “If you are going to service your community, roll up your sleeves and expect a lot of hard work and a couple of good fights.”

“And boy was she right,” Brown said.

Jordan, who has known Vassar for more than 30 years, spent his time telling all the things that he wasn’t going to talk about, but did mention Vassar’s husband.

“For years, I thought her husband’s named was Vassar Vassar. She always called him by his last name, but there were times the octave level changed.”

He also said whenever it was election time, Vassar always had that stern talk with her children to walk a straight line, and she sent her husband away on some sort of project, making sure he didn’t come back until the polls closed.

Gentry, who is one of Vassar’s best friends, said the secret to being friends with Vassar is to remember one of Vassar’s philosophies, “My opinions may have changed, but not the fact that I am right.”

“Never did I envision this night,” Vassar said. “I had grand plans like more green space for the city and saving this golf course, but never did expect this, a clubhouse with my name on it. It’s not very often that I’m speechless, but this is one of those times.”

TOP STORY >> Vassar served longest

On Friday afternoon the Sherwood City Council, in a specially called meeting, approved a resolution naming the clubhouse at The Greens at North Hills in honor of retired Alderman Becki Vassar.

The resolution stated that when Vassar retired Dec. 31, 2010, after serving 32 years, she was the longest-serving alderman in the city’s history.

It went on to say that during Vassar’s tenure she “always exemplified the highest levels of service and integrity, was always a spirited advocate for the citizens, and was an energetic guardian of the city’s fiscal integrity and historic significance.”

So in honor of her service, positive commitments and contributions “it is only fitting that henceforth the clubhouse at The Greens at North Hills shall be named The Becki Vassar Clubhouse.”

TOP STORY >> Colonel gives tour of air base

Leader executive editor

Col. Mike Minihan, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, is driving a visitor around Little Rock Air Force Base. It’s mid-day Thursday, and he points to several new buildings going up and improvement projects under way costing about $80 million.

Buildings and roofs are being repaired, while streets and parking lots are repaved.

Several new buildings—such as the 19th Operations Headquarters, the Air National Guard’s 123rd Intelligence Squadron Center and the 189th Engineer Repair Facility—are among those under construction.

The 123rd gathers key air intelligence over Iraq and Afghanistan and relays information to the military on the ground. Minihan is pleased that the Guard’s citizen-airmen play a major role in intelligence. He has praise for all the units on base.

Other recent construction projects include the Joint Education Center on the base periphery, which is accessible to civilians. The flight simulators have been expanded. The airfield has been repaired. On this spring day, the base is looking exceptionally good.

“Our mission couldn’t be better,” the colonel says.

He’s driving around to thank the airmen for what they do every day.

“They’re so good,” he says. “They’re well-trained. It’s an incredible gift they give to the nation.”

Minihan is grateful for the new construction projects since the Pentagon’s $549 billion budget will face serious cuts in the next few years. The military is looking to save $100 billion—$33.3 billion from the Air Force budget—in the next five to six years.

The Air Force is doing more with less: Active-duty personnel are down to 335,000, or about half what they were a decade ago.

“It is clear our charge is to become more efficient in today’s economic times,” Minihan says.

He stays busy on and off the base. Minihan recently went to Washington with Col. Mark Czelusta, commander of the 314th Airlift Wing, and a Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce delegation to meet with Arkansas congressmen and thank them for supporting the base.

This is the largest C-130 base in the world with more than 90 airplanes. They’re constantly on the go — many of them in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas — while others are always training over the skies of central Arkansas and beyond.

The 41st Airlift Squadron and its all-new C-130Js are setting records for airdrops in Afghanistan. The squadron, which has been at Kandahar airfield since March 2009, previously set a record of 51 airdrop missions in January. The unit beat that record last month by completing 72 airdrops of almost 1,100 bundles weighing more than 1.5 million pounds.

Minihan has been at work since 6 a.m. He stops at the 61st Airlift Squadron building and walks up to the unoccupied desk of longtime secretary Cindy Dale, who passed away a few days before. He offers his condolences to her co-workers. Everyone agrees she was special.

When Minihan walks outside, he says he remembers the small building the 61st Airlift Squadron worked in when he was an aircraft commander with the squadron in 1991-94.

“We couldn’t all fit in at the same time,” he says.

Minihan says he’s “a repeat offender,” having done a couple of tours at the base.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, was a flight examiner with the 61st Airlift Squadron from 1977-79. He received his C-130 training here a few years before that.

Another repeat offender.

“Everyone who flies C-130s calls Little Rock home,” Minihan says.

The base spent $154 million last year in addition to its $375 million annual payroll. It created $119 million in local jobs. The base calculates an economic impact of $712 million a year in the community.

A small part of the $549 billion Pentagon budget, to be sure, but Minihan believes the base is a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars.

He makes a stop at the 19th Operation Support Squadron Weather Flight, which was recently named the best in the Air Force for its forecasts.

The award was announced only that morning, and he offers his congratulations. Minihan walks through a hall and orders sandwiches to go in a brown bag for his entourage.

He gets in his car and drives up to the air-control tower. He walks up the stairs carrying his lunch and greets several air-traffic controllers, who are directing flights from all directions.

The colonel likes what he sees. From the tower, this is big-sky country. Planes line up on the right for takeoff. Up in the air straight ahead are planes getting ready to land.

This is the busiest flightline in Air Mobility Command and the second busiest in the Air Force. The tower directs some 200-300 flights a day staffed by young people, some as young as 19.

Sgt. Kelena Hendricks is in charge of the tower that day. She’s serious, focusing on the flights, but she occasionally shares a laugh with her crew to ease the tension in the tower.

These planes don’t have flashy stripes and names on them. Controllers see the gray cargo planes out there and hope they can keep track of them as they take off and land.

“It’s a challenge,” she explains. “They all look alike.”

Hendricks, who is from East Los Angeles, is known affectionately as “The Mexicutioner.”

The 19th Operational Support Squadron air-traffic control tower last year was named the best in the Air Force.

Airman 1st Class Seth Roberts, 21, has just qualified for a controller’s license and receives a pin from Master Sgt. Allan Turk, the chief controller. Minihan also offers his congratulations, then goes downstairs and drives to the flightline.

He talks to the young crew making repairs. He shakes everyone’s hands and asks them how they’re doing and if they need anything.

“More tools,” one of them says.

Old planes are constantly being repaired. Minihan is used to flying 20-year-old airplanes, and that’s fine with him.

Pointing to a nicely refurbished C-130 on the flightline, Minihan says the plane was made back when he joined the Air Force.

Capt. Naomi Donavan walks up to the group. She is in charge of more than 400 maintainers and 30 planes. Half of them are usually deployed.

Minihan says Donavan is the No. 1 captain on base. He thinks the world of her.

“She’s a phenomenal leader,” he says.

He wasn’t in charge of as many people when he was a squadron commander here, Minihan says later.

He says all credit goes to the more than 7,200 active-duty military and civilian members and their families.

The base’s total population of more than 14,400 includes active duty, Arkansas Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, C-130 students, civilian employees and family members.

“It all works because of the airmen and their families,” Minihan says.

TOP STORY >> Murder second tragedy in family

Leader staff writer

Longtime used-car salesman and pawnshop owner Billy Joe Pipkin was shot and killed Monday afternoon during a robbery at his business, KBC Pawn Shop at 3650 Hwy. 367, near Cabot.

The Lonoke County sheriff is investigating the murder. The ATF has offered a $5,000 reward to anyone with information resulting in the arrest and conviction of Pipkin’s murderer.

Lt. Jim Kulesa, spokesman for the sheriff’s department, said Pipkin had been shot once and it appeared that some merchandise was missing. He described the case as a robbery, homicide and arson. Kulesa said investigators from the Arkansas State Police and Cabot Police Department are assisting with the investigation. He is asking residents to report suspicious activity around the building by calling the sheriff’s office at 501-676-3003.

This is not the first time for violent crime to strike the Pipkin family. Pipkin, 60, was the son of Abe Pipkin, then 71, a Beebe police officer who was beaten to death with a crowbar on April 5, 1977, when he came upon a robbery at a drug store. The elder Pipkin’s murder went unsolved for 25 years until Gary Lee Evans confessed to his girlfriend that he had killed him. Evans was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Billy Joe Pipkin searched 25 years for his father’s killer.

Today, the family mourns the loss of a husband, a father and a grandfather.

He and his wife Julie were married 40 years and lived in the house a few steps away from the KBC Pawn Shop and car lot on Hwy. 367 just south of the Cabot city limits. They had four grown children–a son, Dennis Harbison, three daughters, Kelly Knighton, Billi Douglas and Crystal Busby and 10 grandchildren.

“He took care of his kids and took care of his family,” Kelly said.

Julie said her husband “was a Christian man, full of kindness. I love and miss him. They didn’t have to do that, they didn’t have to set fire to our pawnshop. We would have given them the stuff. He had just taken a diabetes shot and in less than 10 minutes he was gone.”

Pipkin opened the KBC in 1996 using the first initials of his daughters’ names in the business’ name. He accepted boats, trailers and even a mobile home.

Before being a pawnshop broker, Pipkin was a used-car salesman, getting into the business at age 26.

“You’ll never make money and be happy unless you work for yourself,” was a quote her father would often say, Kelly said.

Billi and Kelly said their dad went to work every day. One night he went to the hospital for surgery and the next day he went back to work at the pawn shop. He never took a vacation.

According to his daughters, their father would do anything that he could to turn a dime into a dollar. He installed advertising billboards behind his property in view of Hwy. 67/167. He owned rental houses and the business complex on Hwy. 367 that is the location of Treadway electrical-supply store and a package-shipping center.

He owned a machine shop next to Tastee Freez on South Second Street. Pipkin also had many used-car lots in Cabot. One lot was located on the backside of First Security Bank before the kink was taken out of West Main Street in downtown.

“He was always so giving. He was very generous. He gave his money away–more than he spent,” Kelly said.

Billi said he would help others get started in the business. He was willing to answer any questions for new owners.

Billi and Kelly recalled their father would give smoked turkeys at Christmas to loyal customers who bought multiple cars from him at his used-car lot. Billi said one time Pipkin and a friend wanted to try smoking lobsters. The lobsters were frozen so the two put newspapers down on the vehicles and thawed the lobsters on all the cars.

“He loved to cook and eat,” Kelly said.

“When we were little we hunted cars to buy on Saturday and Sunday in the paper. If we looked and bought, one of us was driving it home. He had us working in the car business before we were walking,” Billi said.

Pipkin liked to buy small Toyota or Nissan trucks or Honda cars.

Kelly said they spent many hours cleaning the vehicles. She got her hardship license at age 14 so she could help drive cars from the auto auctions. Kelly said the car lot was a family business; they were there to help but the business and cars were all her father’s.

Billi said she would often drive to high school in a car and by the afternoon, she would have to look at the dealer license plate because her father had sold the car and left her with another.

“He traded his vehicles every six months,” Kelly said.

“Everything I have is for sale except for my wife, kids and dogs,” was a favorite saying of Pipkin.

“That was his passion, he loved cars. He was trying to sell this place. He was needing to retire,” Kelly said.

Pipkin went to school in Cabot completing the ninth grade. He had trouble reading but he knew numbers. He played football and baseball and wanted to be in the Major League, according to Kelly.

Pipkin loved following sports. He attended all the Cabot High School football games rain or snow. He sat on the 50-yard line on the top row of the bleachers despite his son not playing football.

Pipkin was a softball coach. “He liked to be around older kids,” Kelly said.

“He always had a toothpick in his mouth,” family friend Ariel Melby said.

“And gum, that’s what I got him for Christmas, a big ol’ pack of gum from Sam’s,” Kelly said.

SPORTS >> Sylvan Hills kicking in with youth on rosters

Leader sportswriter

Youth has been a plus for the Sylvan Hills Lady Bears soccer team and has caused a struggle on the boys’ squad.

The Lady Bears (6-2, 2-0 5A-Southeast) have leaned on young talent on the offensive front while relying on senior experience defensively in the early going.

Freshmen midfielders Abi Persson and Calyn Fulton have scored most of Sylvan Hills’ points this season with 15 goals each for an average of just under two goals a match.

Although a freshman, Persson is a team captain, and has experience playing against boys on the classic soccer circuit. Persson and Fulton lead a freshmen front that came along just in time for the Lady Bears, who were in danger of not having enough personnel to field a team.

“It’s an amazing amount of freshmen,” Lady Bears coach Nate Persson said. “Probably 75 percent of the of the roster are freshmen, and many of the best players. They’re already competitive, so it points to a bright future.”

The Lady Bears finished third in the recent Paragould invitational tournament with a first-round victory over Vilonia that had to go into a penalty-kick overtime after the teams battled to a 1-1 tie at the end of regulation.

Jonesboro beat Sylvan Hills 3-1 in the semifinals, and then the Lady Bears won their consolation matchup with host Paragould 3-1.

“It certainly has been a surprise,” Persson said. “One thing we’re doing is a new training program where we use 3-on-3 drills. Another thing we’ve done is filled the schedule for the maximum amount of games.

“That gives them plenty of playing time, and they will learn twice as fast in games than they will practices.”

Senior goalkeeper and team captain Hailey Norris anchors the defense and provides team leadership, as does starting defender Sara Talley. Norris and Talley represent most of the experience, and the addition of basketball players Naomi Gregory and Kashima Wright adds team speed.

But the biggest difference for the Lady Bears has been improved morale, Persson said.

“We have a new attitude where there’s a lot more participation,” Persson said. “In the past there has been the idea of not going to all the practices. We often didn’t have a full roster, but this year, we have extra subs.”

The Lady Bears are tied for the conference lead with Little Rock Christian Academy, which benefits from having a roster full of classic league players.

Seizing a conference title from the long-dominant Lady Bruins may be a tough task for such an inexperienced team as Sylvan Hills, but the main goal this year is some postseason success.

“At the beginning, we had one goal, and that’s to win one game at the state tournament,” Persson said. “The girls have gone in as a lower seed the last several times and were eliminated right away against teams with a much higher seed.

“The key for us is to do well in conference so we can draw a higher seed.”

The boys’ youthful look caused growing pains, but the Bears (2-4) recovered from the four early losses to start the season to win two straight 5A-Southeast Conference games.

“We lost our starting goalkeeper, our center midfielder and forward,” coach Sam Persson said. “We lost a combined 40 goals between Josh and Jacob Persson.

“But we have a good group of kids and some good talent even though we don’t have a lot of experience.”

Sylvan Hills lost its season opener to Little Rock Parkview 3-1 before going 0-3 in the Paragould tournament.

But the Bears bounced back in their league opener to beat Mills 3-1. Noah Peters opened the scoring for Sylvan Hills and Jeremiah Persson scored on a free kick before the Comets let the ball through their own net to inadvertently help out their opponent.

The Bears made it two straight victories when they beat Monticello 6-2. Jeremiah Persson had a game-high three goals and Armando Garcia, Nate Clark and Edwin Smith also added scores.

Sam Persson said it took time for his revised strategy to set in with his young squad.

“Because we are so young and starting several ninth graders, and we have a couple of kids who have experience playing club soccer, we’re playing with a style where good touch is required,” the coach said. “We’ve been using it since the beginning of the season.

“In high school, it’s a funny thing, because you’re not out there recruiting, you’re playing with the ones who show up. You have to tailor the kids to a style of play, but you also have to tailor your style of play to the kids,” Persson said.

SPORTS >> Like Mike, we savor Big Dance

Leader sportswriter

My co-worker Mike Kwang-keow is a man of refined tastes.

I guess that’s why I felt vindicated a couple of weeks back when he mentioned his love for March Madness.

Mike is a student at Pulaski Technical College who does page design here at The Leader part time. He is a new citizen to this country, a native of Thailand, and just an all-around good dude. And just like me, he likes good basketball.

To paraphrase, Mike said he loved the NCAA Tournament, but did not care for the NBA so much anymore. It was like music to my ears. Many of my sportswriting colleagues have long teased me over my anti-pro sentiment. Yes, I do make an exception for the NFL, but with the lockout it’s starting to look like that won’t be necessary this year.

Still fairly new to the country, Mike has the luxury of picking and choosing whatever elements of our culture he wishes to follow, and he doesn’t pick up on just anything. So when he says something is entertaining, you can bet it comes from a discriminating source.

Connecticut’s ugly victory over Butler in the championship aside, this year’s NCAA tournament was one of the best in recent memory, complete with stunning upsets and nail-biting finishes that has made the tournament a perennial favorite.

March Madness has reached a level of intrigue and anticipation that is trumped only at this point by the Super Bowl and maybe, the World Series, but it has to a heck of a series matchup. The tournament doesn’t even require “your team” to be in the dang thing for it to be enjoyable.

Well, those reading this space (all four of you) are probably Razorbacks fans, so no need for further elaboration on that one. Hopes for the Natural State this year hinged on both UALR teams, who advanced by winning the men’s and women’s Sun Belt Conference tournaments. Especially heartbreaking was the Trojan men’s NCAA first rounder against UNC-Asheville in which UALR watched a second half lead evaporate into a tie at the end of regulation as UNC-Asheville took an 81-77 victory in overtime.

Still, it was a strong finish to the season for UALR, which lost seven of its final 10 regular season games before catching fire at the Sun Belt tourney in Hot Springs. The Trojans beat South Alabama, rival Arkansas State, perennial Achilles’ heel Middle Tennessee and then squeaked by North Texas 64-63 in a thrilling championship finale.

The Trojan women’s team also fell out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round with a 59-55 loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The excitement of March Madness increases with every round.

In fact, the round of sweet sixteen was so compelling this year, sports editor Todd Traub held off from having his first martini until well past 1 p.m. the first day. Willpower? Heck no, just some good basketball.

Everyone expects upsets in the first two rounds, but Arizona’s 93-77 victory over Duke to make the East regional finals had to be the most shocking.

My personal favorite was Kentucky’s 62-60 victory over overall top seed Ohio State. Not that I carry some big loyalty to UK or coach John Calipari, but when I watch the Wildcats, for some reason, it reminds me of the Sylvan Hills High School varsity team.

It’s probably just the fact that the uniforms are similar in color. I can’t think of any other reason why I would connect Sylvan Hills or any of its players — like, oh, five-star recruit Archie Goodwin, let’s say — with Kentucky.

But now that Connecticut has claimed the national crown over Butler, the runner-up for a second-straight year, it marks the end of basketball season. Yes, I know there is still the NBA, but I say no thanks. And the same goes for Mike.

Mike can wax poetic about the NBA’s glory days of Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and the like, but as far as the league in its current state goes, he takes the same pass I have taken since sometime around the early 1990s.

I’m not denying the incredible talent in the NBA. It just seems strange to me how a player who can jump 18 feet to the rim and dunk, jump over sedans and dunk, turn a flip in mid-air while cooking waffles and dunk, text all six of his girlfriends and eat a bag of popcorn while spinning on the way to a dunk, can be absolutely clueless about how to play proper defense.

Or is playing defense simply not permitted in the NBA? Maybe I’m not up on all the rules of pro basketball. I do know it is legal to dunk.

Granted, it is impressive to see players hit three pointers from the obnoxiously distant three-point line that arches to a peak somewhere near mid-court, but again, rarely are any of those shots contested other than the obligatory hand wave from five feet away.

If someone wants to help pay a guy $6 million a year to dunk a basketball, more power to you — I prefer to watch the game with a few more dimensions. You know, good basketball.

So, until the college and prep hoops start back up sometime in mid-November, it’s off to the baseball and softball diamonds, racetracks, and yes, soccer fields.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around soccer; I guess that’s the one sport Mike, who is so smart he built his own computer, and I will have to disagree on.

Traub has always suspected that instead of building a computer, Mike is building a giant robot in his basement he will someday use to conquer the planet. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but at least if Mike is in charge we’ll still be able to watch good basketball.

SPORTS >> Vacation over, Devils get to work

Leader sports editor

It was a vacation but not a picnic.

The Jacksonville Red Devils went 2-2 in their spring break trip to the Panama City, Fla., Invitational, a performance coach Larry Burrows chalked up to poor concentration and blamed, partially, on the distractions of travel.

“We didn’t play all that well. I guess some of that’s expected,” Burrows said. “It was designed to go down there and play but it was also designed to have a good time. We played okay; we could have played better.”

The Red Devils took a 5-4 loss to Florida High in their opener, beat Chattanooga (Tenn.) Grace 14-0, took a 17-3 loss to Rutherford (Fla.) and beat Godby (Fla.) 14-13.

“The first game we were better than the team that beat us and we had a pretty poor approach to what we were trying to do up there at the plate,” Burrows said.

“I thought the next three games we had a lot better approach but we didn’t pitch and play defense in those three.”

Rutherford went on to beat Mosley (Fla.) 11-9 for the championship and complete a 4-0 run through the invitational.

“One team went 4-0 and another went 0-4 and everyone else went 2-2,” Burrows said. “So I think a lot of people were in the same boat. A lot of that you can attribute to spring break.”

While the beach and the sunshine were highlights of the trip, Jacksonville’s D’Vone McClure provided the highlights on the field as he went 9 for 12 during the tournament.

“He wore it out,” Burrows said. “I think he’s hit five home runs already, six, something like that.”

But Burrows felt, as a team, the Red Devils were already struggling with their mental approach before they ever left Arkansas. He said he saw improvement after Jacksonville (10-3) returned home to sweep a 6A-East doubleheader last week. The Red Devils outscored the Parkview Patriots 25-1.

“We weren’t playing great when we went down there,” Burrows said.

“Other than the first game I thought we did some things well after that. The Parkview game we came out and we were better than they were and I just feel like we’re getting better.”

Burrows said the Devils refocused at the plate before the invitational was over but he was unhappy with the fielding.

“Since we’ve come back we’ve been working a lot on defense,” he said.

Jacksonville was headed to West Memphis for a conference game Tuesday evening.

McClure, the center fielder, is batting close to .500, Burrows said, and is Jacksonville’s hitting leader.

Shortstop Jacob Abrahamson is hitting close to .500 and catcher Patrick Castleberry is batting around .400, Burrows said.

Abrahamson has also seen pitching duty and has been solid on the mound, Borrows said. Abrahamson combined with Noah Sanders to no-hit Grace at Panama City.

“Abe’s had a good outing every time he’s been out and Noah has had a good outing other than once,” Burrows said.

Burrows said Abrahamson and Sanders have been as solid as Jesse Harbin and Mike Lamb, a duo he expected to perform well at the start of the season.

“They’ve pitched with them and at times they’ve thrown better than them. That’s been good to see,” Burrows said.

Xavier Brown has also turned in some quality stints on the mound Burrows said.

The extra pitching help has been good to see with Nick Rodriguez sidelined after taking a line drive to the face early this year.

Rodriguez, who had to have reconstructive surgery, made the trip to Florida and has been cleared to return. Burrows was hoping to get him an inning or two at West Memphis on Tuesday.

SPORTS >> Travs toting Trout into season’s start

Leader sports editor

The Arkansas Travelers have prospects in the outfield and prospects on the mound.

It remains to be seen if that translates to success.

As expected, Arkansas will open its Class AA Texas League season at Midland Thursday with Los Angeles Angels prospect Mike Trout in center field.

Trout, 19, one of the most highly regarded young talents in the minor leagues, played for new Travelers Manager Bill Mosiello at Class A Cedar Rapids last year and is one player Mosiello said he would lobby to get during Angels spring training.

Trout batted .341 between Cedar Rapids and Class Rancho Cucamonga and hit 10 home runs. He was a non-roster invitee to the Angels’ big league spring training camp.

The Travelers will also feature Los Angeles pitching prospects in right-handers Garrett Richards and Orangel Arenas and 2009 Texas League all-star Trevor Reckling, a left-hander.

Richards, the Angels’ No. 7 prospect, led all Los Angeles minor leaguers with 149 strikeouts last year and posted a 3.52 ERA, second lowest among the Angels affiliates. Orenas was third in the organization with a 3.64 ERA and Reckling is back to smooth out his game after he was promoted to Class AAA Salt Lake and struggled there in 2010.

The Travs have eight Class AA newcomers on this year’s roster, 12 who spent time at Arkansas last season and 16 who have Class AA experience.

Outfielder Angel Castillo hit 21 home runs last year and is one of the new faces while Clay Fuller returns after a 2010 season in which he was demoted to Rancho Cucamonga but had a solid run in the second half of the California League season.

Alberto Rosario returns at catcher and first baseman Jay Brossman and second baseman Ryan Mount are back after battling injuries last year. Angels No. 22 prospect Luis Jimenez takes over at third and slick fielding Darwin Perez is up from Class A to play shortstop.

The rest of the pitching rotation features right-hander Kyle Hurst and the duo of righty Eddie McKiernan and left-hander Andrew Taylor, who will combine to fill the fifth spot. McKiernan was a closer last year and led all Angels minor leaguers with 28 saves and Taylor is the club’s No. 28 prospect.

Ryan Brasier, who pitched a no-hitter last season, moves into the bullpen and the closer’s role after 23 starts last season.

SPORTS >> Cabot’s Bates chips in as Hogs win

UA Sports Information

Arkansas jumped to an early lead and the bullpen shut down No. 25 Alabama as the Razorbacks took a 4-3 victory at Sewell-Thomas Stadium on Sunday.

Arkansas took a 4-2 lead and the relievers pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings in the series finale.

The Razorbacks (19-8, 3-6 SEC) dropped the first two of three games to Alabama (21-9, 7-2).

Relievers Trent Daniel and Nolan Sanburn combined to give up just one hit over 5 2/3 innings.

Daniel earned his first collegiate victory, pitching 3 2/3 innings and giving up the hit while striking out one. Sanburn earned his third save, pitching two hitless innings.

Randall Fant started for Arkansas and got no decision, allowing three runs, two earned, on two hits in 3 1/3 innings.

Alabama starter Tucker Hawley (5-2) took the loss, giving up four runs on eight hits with six strikeouts in six innings.

Collin Kuhn closed out a strong weekend at the plate, going 3 for 4 with a run scored. For the series, Kuhn hit .692 (9 for 13) with a home run, three RBI and three stolen bases.

Cabot’s Sam Bates, Tim Carver, Eric Fisher and Jacob Morris each added a hit and an RBI in the victory.

Bates is the former Panthers standout who was drafted by the Florida Marlins out of junior college last year but opted to stay in college and play for the Razorbacks.

Alabama managed just three hits from Brandt Hendricks, Josh Rosecrans and Austen Smith, with Rosecrans and Smith getting an RBI.

The Crimson Tide struck first, scoring two runs in the bottom of the first.

Taylor Dugas led off the inning with a walk. With one out, Jared Reaves reached base and Dugas moved to second when James McCann was called for catcher’s interference.

After a double steal, Smith drove in the first run of the game with a groundout to short. Rosecrans then singled to left field to bring home Reaves and put Alabama in front 2-0.

Matt Reynolds and McCann started the second with back-to-back singles. Fisher then lined a single to center to score Reynolds to trim the lead to 2-1.

The Razorbacks tied it with a two-out rally in the third. Kuhn singled and stole second. Bates brought home Kuhn with a double to the right-center field alley to tie it 2-2.

McCann started the Arkansas fourth with a walk and moved to second when Fisher grounded out to first. A groundout to the pitcher by Kyle Robinson advanced McCann to third and Carver drove him in with a single to make it 3-2.

After Carver stole second, Morris lined a double down the right field line to bring home Carver and stretch the lead to two.

The Razorback bullpen held Alabama in check for the rest of the game, but the Crimson Tide did make things interesting in the ninth, advancing the potential tying run to third.

Andrew Miller drew a walk to start the inning and then moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Hendricks. A groundout to the pitcher by Brett Booth advanced Miller to third.

Pinch hitter David Kindred was hit by a pitch to put runners at the corners for Alabama’s top hitter Dugas, but Sanburn got him to ground out to shortstop to end the game.