Did UALR Volleyball Have the Greatest Arkansan Student-Athlete this Century?

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UALR volleyball player Edina Begic’s athletic brilliance puts her in a class of her own when it comes to recent achievements of student-athletes at Division I and II colleges in the state of Arkansas. The three-time Sun Belt player of the year led her program to a 20-0 record in conference and an NCAA Tournament win last week against No. 11 Kansas – at Kansas.

She had the Lady Trojans on the brink of the Sweet 16. I’m not sure if any in-state Division I university, outside of the University of Arkansas, has made a Sweet 16 in any team sport. Here are some of Begic’s other achievements:

*Last year, set an NCAA record by winning a conference player of the week award seven times, five of them back to back.

*Broke that record this season by winning the award eight times.

*In 2012, ranked No. 1 in the nation in kills (an attack not returned by the opponent, resulting in a point) per set.

*In 2013, ranked No. 3 in kills per set and paired with teammate Sonja Milanovic to form the nation’s top spiking duo (with 9.09 kills per set).

*Consensus top hitter in program history, finishing first in career kills, second in digs and fourth in service aces.

Begic has competitors for the title of Greatest Arkansas Student-Athlete since 2000. As I wrote this week in Arkansas Times, “Henderson State University quarterback Kevin Rodgers just finished a career in which he also shattered multiple career records and finished as a three-time conference player of the year, but his team didn’t win a post-season game. Former Harding University basketball player Matt Hall and Kayla Jackson, a former University of Arkansas at Monticello softball star, also both won multiple conference player of the year and All-America awards.

In Division I women’s sports, former UCA basketball player Megan Herbert comes closest to Begic. Herbert, a three-time conference player of the year (who should have won it all four years), was one of the nation’s most prolific rebounders despite standing 5-foot-10. But she never led a team nearly as impressive as Begic’s 2014 squad, and her Sugar Bears never broke into the NCAA Tournament.

On the Division I men’s side, former Razorback Darren McFadden had some legendary games against elite competition, and he twice won the nation’s award for best running back, but his overall game-to-game running statistics were not as impressive as Begic’s kill statistics.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Proposed Hot Springs Sports Complex Vs. Burns Park

PROPOSED BASEBALL SITE
Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, left, Danny Herring, field supervisor for UMETCO, and David Longinotti, Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission chairman, visit with media, at a closed mine to view a proposed sports complex site off of U.S. Highway 270 about a mile east of Hot Springs on March 27, 2013. Courtesy: WEHCO, Inc.

There has been a recent wellspring of news pieces extolling the benefits of a proposed regional sports complex east of Hot Springs.

The basic idea, espoused by the city’s advertising and promotion commission, is to buy at least 175 acres previously owned by a vanadium mining company (UMETCO) and turn the area off U.S. 270 into a gleaming citadel of youth sports.

How gleaming? Talk is it would be one of the finest sports complexes in the South.

Tentative plans, according to Hot Springs Sentinel Record, include “a signature youth baseball field with ‘spectacular views’ at the top of the site; two multipurpose fields that would accommodate four regulation fields; a ‘fourplex’ youth baseball area that would be the central focus of the complex, with four youth baseball fields; a group gathering area next to a heavily wooded area that could contain soft trails and accommodate mountain biking, interpretive stations, wildlife blinds, day camp activities, small pavilions and picnicking; and a high-point lookout.”

I agree: this sounds awesome. And – wait – it gets even more awesome/new fangle-y.

According to THV 11, this complex would include fields for flag football and lacrosse. Lacrosse? That sport which struggles to attract more than 31 Twitter followers in the state’s largest city? Expect any lacrosse fields to be used much more by lacrosse-saavy Tennesseans and Texans than Arkansans.

The complex would cater to visitors from out of state, after all. It would serve a conduit or these potential tourists to be funneled to nearby activities and sites such as the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a collection of historic markers commemorating the city’s early role in spring training for professional baseball.

Let’s assume the Garland County powers that be get what they want and this regional sports mecca gets underway.

A major question looms: what does it portend for North Little Rock’s Burns Park?

The 1,700-acre park  already includes a few sports complexes which host regional events.

Not to mention a 36-hole golf course, 36-hole disc golf course, soccer complex, tennis, trails, seasonal amusement park, archery range and a dog park.

The Burns Park baseball complex, just completed in 2012,  includes nine fields. Its soccer complex includes 17  irrigated fields, 1,500 parking spaces, tournament lighting on one quadrant, pavilions, 135 acres of preserved wetland, a three-mile hike/bike trail and is home to the UALR women’s soccer team.

It has hosted the nation’s biggest events in youth soccer: the 2006 & 2002 US Youth Soccer Southern Regional Championships as well as the 2008  US Youth Soccer National Championships.

And let’s not forget about the softball complex, which throws some serious heat with:

  • 5-fields
  • 20/30 regular play lighting
  • 30/50 tournament play lighting
  • Three window concession stand
  • Five scorekeeper rooms
  • Sports medicine room
  • Over 1,000 lighted parking spaces with concrete walkways.

If the Hot Springs sports complex is built, will that town’s leaders start locking horns with their NLR counterparts in attempts to attract top regional youth sports tournaments?

Consider that  in 2005 alone, more than 182,000 participants and spectators came to the Burns Park soccer complex. That’s a lot of tourist dollars – money that may soon go to Hot Springs instead of Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Arkansas Is Home to Two National Champion Trees

It hasn’t been a good last couple weeks in the world of Arkansas sports. The Hogs baseball team lost two of three against LSU, then badly stubbed its toe on Nebraska. Broadcasting legend and UA alum Pat Summerall died. And Hunter Mickelson added to the seemingly never-ending instability of the basketball team when he announced he will transfer.

Everybody knows Arkansas didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but – to make matters worse – it turns out that the “Natural State” didn’t even make it into “Big Tree Madness.” The state, well known for its trees, didn’t qualify as one of the 16 contestants in an annual national tournament pitting the biggest trees of each state against each other in a Facebook fan vote-based contest.

Making matters worst, Missouri won it all.

Arkansans should taken some solace, though, in the fact that their state is home to two national “champion trees” as determined by a register kept by American Forests, the self-declared oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country. Arkansas has two species representatives which are bigger (in terms of width, height and trunk circumference) than any other state’s:

1. Common PERSIMMON, measured by Lynn Warren in Yell County. Ninety-four feet high!

2. Shortleaf PINE, measured by Don Bragg in Ashley County. This 136-footer is located three miles south of Hamburg, the birthplace of Hall of Fame basketball player Scottie Pippen. Two other NBA players – Jeremy Evans and Myron Jackson – also hail from Ashley County, which seems to do “tall” pretty well.

So there you have ’em, Arkansas. The trees that make ya proud on a national scale (even if you do want to consider that more than 780 such national champions exist and there are nearly 50 different kinds of registered Pine trees).

For more information, keep an eye out for AETN’s upcoming documentary on the largest trees of each type within Arkansas itself. Mark Wilcken is producing the film. 

Of Spandex & Horribly Awkward Moments Among Moaning Poles

Kielbasa Alert
Kielbasa Alert

Stay at home dad/freelance writer I am, I have my morning ritual.

Scoop 5-month old baby Eden from her crib around 7:30, shuffle into the living room, descend into Lazy Boy and dutifully insert bottle in mouth. Most days, I browse the paper’s sports section as I rouse from my pre-coffee sleepiness.

This morning, though, I flipped through the most recent issue of SYNC, a central Arkansas weekly.

Good call, me.

At the bottom  of page nine, I found one of the finest pieces of cross-cultural absurdist sports writing by an Arkansan I’ve ever read . In guest columnist Will Hehemann’s vignette on his experience weightlifting in Poland, I believe I have found the love child of a Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad and the screenplay of Freak and Geeks.

It is not the cutest baby you have ever seen. But you should try cuddling it anyway:

Tension in the workout room

By Will Hehemann

It’s difficult to execute a proper preacher curl while I’m sitting next to a marble-cut behemoth who moans every time he completes a repetition on the tricep machine. And though male moaning is likely an egotistical trait expressed by male gym members worldwide, I wonder where the regular people work out in Poland.

The bulk of the clientele at the gyms I have visited while living in Gdansk is composed of hard-bodied beasts with tan skin. Most of the men boast shaved heads, strong upper bodies and proud Polish beer guts — they look like tough gorillas. The women wear sports bras that reveal their toned tummies and the gorillas can’t keep their eyes off them. It’s crowded in this stuffy little gym, and I’m pretty sure they have the heat on.

My soft body and idiotic gym style (yellow Converse and Millennium Falcon shirt) didn’t stick out too much at 10 Fitness back in Conway. There, people of every possible chassis and dimension came as they were to work out and feel proud they made the effort, with little care as to which shirt they were wearing — Tasmanian Devil or Tweety Bird. But here, it’s a full-on Spandex show and I look like an idiot for not showcasing my butt in tight gym pants like everyone else.

Continue reading Of Spandex & Horribly Awkward Moments Among Moaning Poles

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

What Made Arkansas’ Record-Setting 2012 Track Team So Unique

Record-setter Marek Niit in action. Courtesty: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

I recently talked to a former Razorback  about pioneering Olympian Christophe Lemaitre and how elite white sprinters are viewed in the track world at large. Cedric Vaughn, now the track coach at Arkansas Baptist College, knows his sport very well. When he was in Fayetteville, he ran the 200 meter and the 4X400m and 4X100m relays while teaming with the likes of Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon. To this day, Vaughn keeps in touch with both Olympians and sometimes stays at their Fayetteville homes when he visits his alma mater.

Vaughn, also a trainer at D1 Sports Training, first emphasized training plays a large part in a sprinter’s success. Still, the genetic component is undeniable. And, on the whole, people with West African ancestry tend to have more body features better suited for sprinting, he added. “I really believe African-Americans are built more athletically” for running, citing studies which confirmed blacks tend to have more efficient fast-twitch muscles. Moreover, the French journalist Phillippe Leclaire recently released a book on the subject bringing up another factor – ACTN3, the so-called ‘sprint gene.”

The ACTN3 was discovered for the first time by a team of Australian researchers in 2003. It is a gene present in all humans in two forms, either the RR form which helps speed, or the RX form which aids endurance.

“Since its discovery, a lot of research has shown that the RR form of the gene gives those who hold it explosive muscle power when the body is put under a certain amount of physical stress, so it’s a natural predisposition for sprinters,” Leclaire explained.

“If you had a weak form of ACTN 3, it would be impossible to match the great sprinters,” he said.

Leclaire concluded that the genes favourable for sprinting are more commonly found in those of West African origin.

There are exceptions, of course, which explains how French sprinter Lemaitre has been able to compete in the same class as the likes of Bolt and fellow Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake.

Continue reading What Made Arkansas’ Record-Setting 2012 Track Team So Unique

Why It Matters that the Fastest White Man on Earth is, well, White

The blacks, physically, are made better.” – Carl Lewis, nine-time Olympic gold medal winner in track and field.

“White Man’s Burnin'” could be the theme of this Olympic Games’ 200 meter race

Lightning-quick reactions.

In most sports, they form the foundation of victory. Nowhere is this more cut and dry than in sprinting, where legacies often boil down to a matter of milliseconds.

Few athletes in history have developed more efficient fast-twitch muscles than four top track stars in this year’s Olympics: Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell and Razorback Tyson Gay. In 100 meter races, they have produced the top 21 performances ever. In the 200m, they had notched nine of the top 11 times.

In London, though, Europe’s fastest man is expected to loosen this quartet’s vice grip on the world’s biggest stage. Twenty-two-year-old Christophe Lemaitre entered the Olympic 200m and 4X100m relay with one of the event’s most intriguing stories. Lemaitre didn’t even start sprinting until age 15. In the next five years, he demolished one record after another in his native France while growing to 6-feet-3.

At a 2010 meet, Lemaitre became the first white European or American to run 100 meters under 10 seconds.  His 9.98 time was good, but far off Bolt’s 9.58 world record. Still, Lemaitre had proven himself as a clear exception to a rule that had become more and more ironclad since south Arkansas native Jim Hines first broke the 10-second barrier in the 1968 Olympics: black sprinters dominate.
Before Lemaitre, 70 of 71 of the sprinters who’d run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds had primarily west African ancestry.
Why?

I admit it: A vast slippery slope stretches before us. Many people, Lemaitre included, hesitate to even bring up racial barriers in a Western society which strives for meritocracy. In November, 2011, he told the New York Times he feels it’s possible the black monopoly on track has built “a bit of psychological barrier” for some aspiring white athletes and that his performance could help “advance and make the statement that it has nothing to do with the color of your skin and it’s just a question of work and desire and ambition.”

Lemaitre’s sentiments had already been espoused by the college coach of Olympic gold medalists Michael Johnson (4th all-time in the 200m) and Jeremy Wariner, a white 400m champion. “White kids think that it’s a black kids’ sport, that blacks are superior,” Baylor University’s Clyde Hart (a Hot Springs native) told Sports Illustrated in 2004.”There are plenty of white kids with fast-twitch fibers, but they’ve got to get off their rumps. Too many of them would rather go fast on their computers in a fantasy world. It’s not about genes, although they may play some part in it. It’s about ‘Do you want it badly enough?’”

No matter how badly we as Americans want to believe it, we know there’s more to success than willpower and worth ethic. We know these attributes don’t develop in a vacuum. Nurture has something to do with it. So does nature. Indeed, some scientists believe they have pinned the ratio in regards to foot speed.. According to the director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Institute, an athlete’s “environment” can account for 20 to 25 percent of his speed, but the the rest is determined before birth.

Continue reading Why It Matters that the Fastest White Man on Earth is, well, White

Pitting SEC States Against Each Other in the Olympics

Pole vaulter Earl Bell is in the middle of any debate on Arkansas’ most accomplished Olympian.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN 7.10.00

 In Southeastern Conference territory, competition is a way of life. Year after year, SEC sports programs spew jetstreams of cash to beat each other on and off the field. Stadia, facilities, coaches’ salaries, TV contracts just keep getting bigger and better. There’s really no choice. Snazzy helicopters, after all, can only do so much to lure the big-time recruits which make college sports’ premier conference go round.

With the Summer Olympics opening ceremony this Friday, though, now is a good time to figure out which SEC state is top dog in terms of all-around athletic talent. For this exercise, we’ll tear down institutional walls which divide states. No Auburn/Alabama or MSU/Ole Miss delineations here. We only care about state borders, and the  Olympians who grew up between them.

With this in mind, it turns out the biggest states have produced the most gold medalists at all modern summer Olympic Games since 1896. Not a surprise.

It gets interesting, however, when examining the numbers on a per capita basis:

Breaking Down SEC states’ # of Gold Medalists Per Capita

Rank

State

# of Gold Medalists

2010 Population

# People per Gold Medalist

Most Impressive Olympians?

1 Mississippi 22 2.97 million 135,000 Calvin Smith, Ralph Boston
2 Missouri 31 5.99 million 193,226 Henry Iba, Helen Stephens
3 Arkansas 14 2.92 million 208,571 Earl Bell, Scottie Pippen
4 Louisiana 21 4.53 million 215,714 Rod Milburn, Karl Malone
5 Kentucky 16 4.34 million 271,250 Muhammad Ali, Mary Meagher
6 Alabama 17 4.7 million 276,471 Harvey Glance, Jennifer Chandler
7 Georgia 35 9.69 million 276,857 Gwen Torrence, Angelo Taylor
8 Texas 72 25.15 million 349,306 Babe Zaharias, Michael Johnson
9 South Carolina 12 4.63 million 385,833 Joe Frazier, Katrina McClain
10 Florida `43 18.80 million 437,209 Bob Hayes, Rowdy Gaines
11 Tennessee 11 6.35 million 577,273 Wilma Rudolph, Tracy Caulkins

Continue reading Pitting SEC States Against Each Other in the Olympics

Of Mayflower, paintball and the Heart of Darkness

In some wussed-up places, like Germany, people must be at least 18 years old to play paintball. Which may explain why that country hasn't won a war since like the 1800s and no German's milquetoast face has ever been sculpted into the sport's Mount Rushmore. Paintball Arkansas, on the other hand, allows minors to play. And straight-up bloom into warriors. Another reason America just keeps kickin' ass, ya'll!

When novelist Joseph Conrad tossed around possible settings for what would become his signature work, Heart of Darkness, it’s a safe bet Mayflower wasn’t a candidate.

 Even at the turn of last century, there was far too much civilization in this south Faulkner County area to support Conrad’s harrowing tale of moral disintegration. No true chaos can emerge from the so-called wilderness flanking I-40. Yet in those sparse woods, among rusting husks of old cars and vans and hordes of young men wearing plastic masks evoking chemical warfare, I saw the lights going out.

Laughter filled the few hours we seven adults shared on a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the paintball facility Paintball Arkansas. Two women and five guys, all affiliated with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, with hardly a scrap of paintball experience between us.

It showed.

Still, after five games between ourselves, we felt ready to take on the outside world.

That came in the form of four boys, 11-to-14-year-olds, who assured us they hadn’t played much organized paintball. We nervously laughed. One of their guns far too closely resembled an AK-47 for us to take them lightly.

Continue reading Of Mayflower, paintball and the Heart of Darkness