The Best Soccer Players in Arkansas History

There are only 559 days left until the start of the next World Cup, but it’s never too late to thinking about soccer.

Actually, it’s almost always too late, or early, for me anyhow. While I adore this game, and every summer try to watch it during major international competitions,  I just can’t seem to find much attention to it during college football season. Once November hits, along with my favorite sport basketball, soccer ends up pushed even further into the recesses of my mind.

To the point where I just had to Google “winner MLS 2012” to confirm that the LA Galaxy won a few weeks ago or whenever that game was.

Honestly, I feel guilty. Here I am, caring about soccer and realizing that it’s the second-most popular sport among American 12-24 year olds (only behind the NFL), and yet I can’t manage to cut down my football or basketball watching time during the non-summer.

And so, in an effort to absolve myself, I offer unto you something from the reliquary:

The following was originally published in Sync magazine on June 16, 2010:

Pop quiz, sports fans: Who’s the best soccer player ever? Sure, Pele’s as good an answer as any. Okay, try this one, World Cup watchers: Who’s the finest soccer player the United States has ever produced? 

    Old heads go with goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, or midfielder Claudio Reyna, while new school candidates include Tim Howard and Landon Donovan. Yet Saturday in the Americans’ opener against England, it seemed God was tipping his hat to Clint Dempsey. In the first half, the Texan saw his easily catchable 25-meter shot inexplicably roll out of the English goalie’s arms and into the goal, notching the match at what would become the final 1-1 score. 

    Okay, my soccer-savvy reader, I’ve got one last question: Who’s Arkansas’ best all-time soccer player? 

    Wow. I had forgotten how horrendous a vinyl record screeching to a halt sounds. 

    Unfurrow that brow — you’re in the same boat as approximately 99.998% other Arkansans who have no clue what kind of elite soccer talent has played in their own backyard. 

    So, as this week’s conversation inevitably drifts to South Africa, stun your friends, shock your parents, and blow the minds of your office mates by bringing up some of Arkansas’ more obscure sports legends — who merely play the world’s most popular game. 

MALE 
    Caveat: Go ahead and get your teeth grit on. Yes, the two best male players to have played in our state left to complete their high school careers in the Dallas area. But that place is a soccer hotbed, and you can’t blame a brother for wanting to raise his game. 

    1. Domenic Mediate, 5’9’’ midfielder/forward — Mediate grew up in Southlake, Texas, but as a young teenager moved to Northwest Arkansas, where he played for the Arkansas Comets club team from 1995 to 1998, according to a website of a soccer camp he runs in Springdale. In 1999, before his junior year of high school, Mediate returned to Texas, where he dominated at Southlake Carroll High School before playing at the University of Maryland. 

Continue reading The Best Soccer Players in Arkansas History

The Big What If

Imagining a World Where the Big, Bad Wolves Take on the State’s Top Hogs: Image courtesy of Sync magazine

Rivalry week gripped the college football world last Saturday.

In states with populations or areas similar to Arkansas – Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Carolina – longtime intrastate foes squared off for annual bragging rights.

The University of Arkansas doesn’t schedule in-state competition, so nothing like Ole Miss-Mississippi State or Clemson-South Carolina erupts here. It’s widely believed the state’s other FBS program, Arkansas State, couldn’t beat Arkansas often enough for an authentic rivalry to flourish. The numbers support this: since 2001, UA and ASU have played the same opponent 21 times within the same season. Only four times did ASU lose to that opponent by an equal or smaller margin.

And not until this season did ASU beat an opponent that had, or would, defeat Arkansas. In September, Louisiana-Monroe beat Arkansas 34-31 in Little Rock. In November, ULM lost to ASU 45-23 in Jonesboro.

Breathe easy, Hog fan. I won’t indulge in wonky transitive property logic. I know that with enough if-thens, even an insane argument like Arkansas Baptist College-Is-Better-Than- Texas A&M looks rational.

Besides, injuries affected both games. Arkansas lost quarterback Tyler Wilson for the second half of the ULM loss. Then, three of ULM’s defensive starters missed the ASU game, along with four offensive starters – including star quarterback Kolton Browning. “I’m not making excuses,” says ULM head coach Todd Berry. But “obviously that affected our game plan. We still threw the ball around decent and moved the ball, but there was that extra dimension they didn’t have to prepare for.”

ASU’s ULM win, along with ranking ahead of Arkansas in national polls, don’t necessarily prove ASU is better than Arkansas this season. Instead, these events simply make speculating about a hypothetical showdown all the more fun.

Especially if it happened at War Memorial Stadium. “I think it would be great for the state,” ASU head coach Gus Malzahn said last week. “I think it would create a lot of excitement.”

Below is a prediction of how the game would have transpired if these programs played last week, with staffs and injury statuses as they were at season’s end.

UA Offense vs. ASU Defense

Tyler Wilson picks apart the Red Wolves with pinpoint passing. His main target is Cobi Hamilton, who has a field day against smaller ASU defensive backs like Chaz Scales and Don Jones, who plays only half the game because of a suspension.

ASU starts off blitzing Wilson often but slows down after it is shredded a few times on short slants with Hamilton and wheel routes with Knile Davis. The Hogs’ offensive linemen, who average 303 pounds, consistently open holes against ASU defensive linemen who average about 280 pounds. Hog running back Dennis Johnson uses these to get to the defense’s second line, where the stout senior has a few epic collisions with ace linebacker Nathan Herrold.

As always, lack of consistent focus and turnovers plague Arkansas. RB Jonathan Williams makes a spectacular 36-yard run on a promising drive at the end of the first quarter, only to cough it up at the end. In the third quarter, Arkansas’ Mekale McKay catches a 40-yard pass and appears headed for the endzone when safety Sterling Young strips him on a blindside hit.

Continue reading The Big What If

North Little Rock’s loss to Fayetteville only latest example of NWA dominance in high school football

North Little Rock nearly pulled off the improbable Friday night.

The Charging Wildcats were down 24-6 to Fayetteville early in the fourth quarter, and any hopes of reaching the championship game were quickly slipping away. But, with the help of a few big plays and the mounting support of a home crowd, NLR righted the ship and began quickly chipping away at the lead. With about 30 seconds left, North Little Rock converted a two-point play to push ahead  28-27 and cap a stunning 22-3 run in less than 10 minutes. The miraculous comeback neared completion.

Yet, even more improbably, a central Arkansas team was poised to win a semifinal game in the state’s largest classification – something that hasn’t happened in eight years. Moreover, since 2006, every 7A title game has featured northwest Arkansas teams.

North Little Rock’s successful reversal of the trend was not be to be.

The Fayetteville Bulldogs returned NLR’s ensuing kickoff to their own 42 yard line, then completed two passes for 37 yards to set up a game-winning 38-yard field goal.

And so, just like that, the 2004 Little Rock Central Tigers remain the last central Arkansas high school to not only win a state title in the largest classification, but even play for one at War Memorial Stadium.

Since then, in the playoffs, NWA teams are 26-10 against central Arkansas teams.

Here are the results from the last two rounds:

2005
Finals
Springdale 54, West Memphis 20

Semifinals
Springdale 49, LR Catholic 14
West Memphis 17, FS Northside 14 OT

2006
Finals
FS Southside 23, Rogers 22

Semifinals
FS Southside 40, NLR 34 2 OT
Rogers 35, Fayetteville 26

2007
Finals
Fayetteville 28, Springdale Har-Ber 7

Semifinals
Fayetteville 24, Bentonville 7
Springdale Har-Ber 47, Russellville 23

2008
Finals
Bentonville 32, FS Southside 20

Semifinals
Bentonville 27, Russellville 0
FS Southside 8, Springdale Har-Ber 7

2009
Finals
Springdale Har-Ber 27, FS Southside 6

Seminfinals
Springdale Har-Ber 14, Cabot 10
FS Southside 24, NLR 23

2010
Finals
Bentonville 49, Fayetteville 28

Semifinals
Bentonville 49, Springdale Har-Ber 20
Fayetteville 24, FS Southside 21

2011
Finals
Fayetteville 29, Bentonville 28 OT

Semifinals
Fayetteville 23, FS Southside 20
Bentonville 31, NLR 7

2012

Finals

Fayetteville vs Bentonville

Semifinals

Fayetteville 30, North Little Rock 28

Bentonville 28, FS Southside 21

After the game, I spoke to Jamie Washington, an assistant football coach at Little Rock Fair, about why central Arkansas teams have so drastically fallen behind their NWA counterparts.

Continue reading North Little Rock’s loss to Fayetteville only latest example of NWA dominance in high school football

Did Gus Malzahn Just Nuke His Chances at Hog Head Honcho-dom?

image
Malzahn mills about after speaking at Monday’s LR Touchdown Club, which was standing room only.

A football coach isn’t trained to look too far down the road.

He earns most of his pay to make decisions in the now, to successfully adjust schemes in the span of minutes and get his players locked into the present moment with laser-like intensity. The best coaches develop the ability to think one step ahead of the game on the field. All the recruiting, fish fry glad-handing and long film sessions serve only one purpose – 60 minutes, played 12 or 13 Saturdays a year.

So, it’s not surprising that Malzahn was operating very much in the present tense as the guest speaker at the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday. In his case, that means toeing the party line as head coach of the nascent Arkansas State Red Wolves program. In his first season, Malzahn has continued to stoke statewide interest in the program that’s now vying for its second consecutive conference title.

He stoked fires of a different sort at the Monday luncheon.

Without prompting, Malzahn launched into the state’s most enduring hot-button sports issues – the ASU vs. UA debate. UA’s unofficial policy has prevented the program from scheduling in-state competition since 1946. But that hasn’t stopped what many Hog fans perceive as other such programs from showing up at the UA’s doorstep, hat in hand, beseeching the master of the home for a few gold coins in the form of a guarantee game.

Malzahn reminded us ASU is the latest  program to make such a request.

“We’ve reached out to the University of Arkansas. We’d like to play them in Little Rock in the future, and we think that would be good for the state.”

He later added: “I think it’s the day and time that Arkansas State and Arkansas needs [sic] to play to play in Little Rock… It’s not 1970 anymore. It really isn’t. I think it’s healthy for everybody concerned.”

Continue reading Did Gus Malzahn Just Nuke His Chances at Hog Head Honcho-dom?

You Got Me Good, Frank Broyles’ Predecessor at Georgia Tech

Without exception, there are and always will be exceptions.

We all (hopefully) learn this at some time or another, and my most recent lesson came via the expansive readership of the New York Times.

I wrote a piece for the paper’s college sports blog about how college football is the only major American team sport in which there hasn’t been a freshman/rookie to win that sport’s most prestigious individual award. In college football’s case, it’s the Heisman.

In pro sports, there has been a lot more opportunities for first-year player to win such honors because rookies have played on the same teams as veterans since the major leagues’ inceptions. In the college ranks, I knew freshmen played on their own teams, apart from upperclassmen, until 1972. I assumed that was the year the NCAA first allowed freshmen to play with upperclassman, and so naturally I assumed there could not have been a freshmen Heisman finalist before that year.

I was wrong, as “Todd D” from Tampa Bay, Florida pointed out in my blog post’s comments.

Turns out that during World War II, Georgia Tech freshmen played because there was the shortage of able-bodied men who’d left to fight overseas. And in 1942, a scatback named Clint Castleberry injected life into a Yellow Jackets program which had had only two winning seasons since 1930:

Standing only five-foot-nine, a hundred and fifty-five pounds, Castleberry did not allow his diminutive stature to overshadow his talent and immense heart. Upon entering Tech, he had never played in a game in which his team had lost—and the string continued in the fall of 1942. In essence, Castleberry became Seabiscuit in football pads, revitalizing Tech with incredible touchdown runs—that inspired at least one sportswriter to marvel that he “ran like a crazed jackrabbit,” defensive gems, and a Chip Hilton too-good-to-be-true personality.

Before a late-season knee injury, Castleberry led Georgia Tech to a 9-0 record and into the national Top 5.  He played only that one season before heading off to war himself, but impressed everyone and finished third in the Heisman voting. There wouldn’t be another freshman Heisman finalist until another Georgian – Herschel Walker – finished third in 1980. According to football historian Bill Chastain, Castleberry is the only Georgia Tech player with his number retired.

If the program decided to enshrine two jerseys, who would be a top candidate? How about a 19-year-old from Decatur who arrived on campus the next season and developed into a two-time All-SEC QB, as well as a star in baseball and football?

Frank Broyles wouldn’t be a bad choice at all.

One of nation’s top prep point guards leads Little Rock Hall to 88-0 win

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Tim Cooper’s didn’t expect history to be made when he covered the first round of a Little Rock prep basketball tournament on Monday night. In  the midst of back-to-back games, he headed to the locker room to interview coaches from the first game. He ended up waiting a few minutes longer than expected.

Little did Cooper know that by the time he returned to the floor, three and a half minutes into the second game, the home team L.R. Hall High would be up 28-0.  It didn’t promise to get much better. Little Rock Fair, which hasn’t won since the 2008-09 season, dressed out only six players for Monday’s season opener. None of the girls on its normal 11-person roster are taller than 5-8. Hall, meanwhile, has one of the state’s strongest teams boasting possibly the nation’s top prep point guard in Tyler Scaife.  What’s more, Hall had built its early lead without even employing a full-court defense.

With such a talent, size and depth disparity, “this game should have never been played,” Cooper said in a Tuesday  interview with 103.7 FM’s “The Zone.” So, with any question of the eventual victor all but answered, the only remaining drama applied to when Fair would first score.

That drama lasted. And lasted.

Fair’s players had their shots, but more of their attempts hit the shot clock above the backboard than the rim, Cooper recalled on 103.7 FM.

“I told our girls to ‘play soft,’ and that’s something I don’t like to do,” Hall Coach Selita Farr told Cooper for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I don’t like to ask kids to turn their game on and off like that.” Minutes into the game, Farr told her players to defend only the area inside the three-point line.

Continue reading One of nation’s top prep point guards leads Little Rock Hall to 88-0 win

How Cam Newton Cleared a Path to the Heisman for Johnny Manziel

College football is the only major American team sport in which a first-year player hasn’t won the sport’s most prestigious award. Freshmen have been chosen as national players of the year in college basketball, baseball and hockey. Rookies have won MVP awards in the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL.

And yet voters for college football’s Heisman Trophy have lagged behind. No freshman has won the Heisman since freshmen started playing with upperclassmen in 1972. Since then, the three freshmen Heisman finalists – Herschel Walker, Michael Vick and Adrian Peterson – have all lost for various reasons. Some of that has been timing. As a freshman, Walker had one of his best games a day after ballots were due. Apparently, the director of the club that hosted the award ceremony said Walker likely would have won the Heisman that year had his 205-yard, 3-TD performance against Georgia Tech been considered.

But the main reasons no freshman has yet won the Heisman are ignorance and bias. Unlike upperclassmen, freshmen don’t begin seasons as known commodities and that initial lack of familiarity among mostly sportswriter voters hurts their chances. As far as I know, no sports information department has launched a Heisman campaign for a freshman, no matter how talented.

Pervasive technology has larged wiped away this knowledge barrier, though. A decade ago, Texas A&M likely would have waited for this upcoming offseason to launch a Heisman campaign for Manziel. Video would have been edited and DVDs would have been mailed out along with snazzy press packets extolling the fleet feet and field awareness of Johnny Football.

The Aggies may still go through the trouble of doing this, but nowadays voters are more likely to pay attention to what’s coursing through their Tweetdeck feed than dropping into their mailbox.

Bias and muddled thinking persist, though.

By and large, voters expect freshmen to be even better as sophomores and juniors. Sure, this happens most of the time. But not always. Michael Vick, for instance, led the nation in passing efficiency as a freshman while leading Virginia Tech to the national title game, but as a sophomore his numbers dipped. Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne had his best overall statistical season as a freshman, but five regular season losses squelched any Heisman talk.

That season would still help propel Dayne to an eventual Heisman as a senior, but he should have been awarded on the merit of a single season.

Some of the 928 voters may argue the Heisman – meant to recognize “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity” – should reflect sustained excellence over multiple years and not equate to an MVP award for a single fall. That a mere season’s worth of kicking ass with integrity isn’t enough to prove one’s chops. Voters want to be certain that a player isn’t “a one-year flash in the pan,” longtime Heisman voter Dave Campbell told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. “When you get right down to it, the voters are probably reluctant to vote for some freshman if you have some legitimate – and I underscore legitimate – juniors and seniors to consider.”

In 2010, Cam Newton destroyed any arguments that more than one season matters. The Auburn quarterback won the Heisman almost purely on the merit of single season’s worth of play. He was so good, it didn’t matter if he’d stolen a computer earlier in his college career, feigned ignorance that his father was pimping him out or that he was a crappy teammate.

Continue reading How Cam Newton Cleared a Path to the Heisman for Johnny Manziel

For First Time, Arkansas State Beats an Opponent That Had Beaten Arkansas

What would happen if the best QB in ASU history had a crack at the state’s top program? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

No doubt, decades will pass before Razorback fans forget Arkansas’ 34-31 home loss to Louisiana-Monroe in its second game this season. It was the first time a Sun Belt team had beaten the Hogs, which led some fans to wonder if the Red Wolves could have challenged the Razorbacks this season.

As the Red Wolves have heated up in the last month, while the Hogs have continued to struggle, the question has been burning for months. On Thursday, though, enough fuel was dumped on to this debate to turn it into a full-fledged fire.

Arkansas State blitzed ULM 45-23, just another ho-hum offensive explosion in the most successful era in the program history (as a Division I-A program, which ASU became in 1992). In the last two seasons, ASU has won 13 of 14 conference games, but none was more historic it terms of potential in-state bragging rights than its rout of ULM.

For the first time since at least 2001 – when ASU started playing in the Sun Belt – it beat an opponent that had beaten Arkansas that same season.

Yes, the Red Wolves beat a ULM squad without an injured Kolton Browning, the  dual-threat quarterback who’d shredded Arkansas for 481 total yards in Little Rock. With a 22-point margin of victory, however, it’s unlikely Browning would have made up the difference to topple ASU in Jonesboro. His backup still passed for 357 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, after all.

Since 2001, Arkansas State has shared an opponent with Arkansas during the same season 21 times. Although Arkansas State has been more impressive against shared opponents the last two seasons, Arkansas still dominates any comparisons between schedules.

Of the 21 times, only four times has ASU lost to a shared opponent by an equal or smaller margin. Those instances are highlighted in red below:

2001

UA @ Georgia L 23-34
ASU @ Georgia L 17-45
UA @ Ole Miss W 58-56
ASU – Mississippi L 17-35

Continue reading For First Time, Arkansas State Beats an Opponent That Had Beaten Arkansas

Hurricane Geek Chic Threatens to Slam into Arkansas’ Sportscape

Coach can bench a star player, sure. But he can’t bench a trend centered on cardigans, oversized glasses, plaid socks and Lilliputian backpacks. (courtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Before Monday night’s rout of some Division IV team named Lemoyne-Owen, Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson announced the state’s best basketball player had been suspended for breaking team rules.

Afterward, Anderson refused to tell the public why he sidelined his preseason All-American B.J. Young  for two games.

If this had happened ten years ago, it would have been quite clear to onlookers Young was breaking unspecified rules of another sort.

On the bench during Arkansas’ 111-45 win over Lemoyne, Young wore a tucked-in pink polo shirt buttoned to the very top, accented by thick-rimmed baby blue glasses. Rewind a decade, and if Young had gone in public looking like this – like Fresh Prince’s Carlton Banks – his teammates would have razzed him to no end.

2002 was a different sartorial world, though. Allen Iverson was basketball’s most popular player, and his style – gold chains, baggy pants, backward caps – had been forming for decades. You’d seen it hit mass cultural conscience through the raphip-hop scene, yes, but before surfacing on MTV it had long brewed in streets of America’s largest cities and the giant prison complexes far away from them.

Continue reading Hurricane Geek Chic Threatens to Slam into Arkansas’ Sportscape

If Derek Fisher had played for the Razorbacks

This was closer to happening than you think. Illustration by Ferris Williams

There aren’t many blank spots on longtime NBA player Derek Fisher’s resume: five world titles, an AAU National Championship, a high school state championship, six years as National Basketball Players Association President. On every big stage the Little Rock native has played, he has left his mark.

Yet there’s the stage he never played on.

It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher has been a part of in his 16-year pro career. Nothing will erase the memory of how close he got as a college senior to making his sport’s most dramatic competition: the NCAA Tournament. His University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans were up 56-55 in the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Championship game with four seconds left.

The University of New Orleans had the ball. Fisher closed out quickly on the opposing guard with the ball, but he spun past Fisher’s outstretched arms and drove to the basket, lofting a teardrop shot that resulted in an upset win.

Despite a 23-6 record, UALR would be left out on the doorstep on Selection Sunday. Fisher’s final shot at the Big Dance was gone.

It could have been much, much different.

What if instead of leading UALR, Fish had helped steer the Razorbacks? “I think he could have played at Arkansas, but coming out of high school, he just wasn’t ready,” said Razorback All-American Corliss Williamson, also one of Fisher’s best friends. There’s a strong chance Fisher was ready for Arkansas halfway through his college career, though, and he was closer to making that jump than many people realize.

See the rest of the story at Sync magazine.

PS – This concludes what has apparently become my blog’s  Of(Fish)al Derek Fisher Week.