When speaking with North Arkansas College Lady Pioneer coach on Wednesday, Bobby Howard started the conversation with a statement.
“We would be at halftime of our first game right now,” he said. “But, here we are in Harrison,”
Howard was referring to his basketball team that would have been playing in the National Junior College Athletic Association Women’s National Basketball Tournament. The Lady Pioneers had earned the school’s sixth trip to the national tournament in the 42 years of competitive basketball.
“All of that travel that we did and all of those games we played,” he stated, “It was a long season only to have it end like it has.”
The NJCAA began by postponing the national tournament for five weeks. Then Monday, the tournaments were completely canceled.
Five weeks was a long time to wait to play a national tournament. Howard knew that.
“I didn’t know how long I could keep the team engaged,” started Howard. “That is a very long time to wait to play. I really didn’t know how I felt about the waiting. I knew that the anticipation would be gone.”
A team meeting put the Lady Pioneers on the path that they needed to be.
“I had them all to my house for a team meeting,” said Howard. “We discussed going to the national tournament. I reminded them it would be five more weeks of hard practice. Everyone of them voted to go to the national tournament. We were going to stay focused and we were going to enjoy the experience.
“That showed me the heart of this team,” he continued. “We were committed to going to the tournament. We were committed to continue working hard.”
Despite having a 22-6 record, on paper it didn’t appear that the Lady Pioneers got a good draw.
“Five of our six losses were to Division I teams,” said Howard. “We were in the polls early, but a pair of back-to-back losses dropped us out.”
The Lady Pioneers were the No. 13 team in the 16 team affair.
“We were disappointed to be No. 13,” stated the coach. “However, we really liked our position in the tournament. I felt that we could have easily made a deep run into the tournament. We were using that No. 13 ranking as bulletin board material.”
Then the tournament was canceled.
“It was our sophomore’s last time to play,” said Howard about the Plains District Tournament finals that was held at Pioneer Pavilion. “My heart really breaks for the girls.”
Coming into the season, Howard knew that he had a special team. He had a solid class of sophomores and a good class of freshmen on the roster. The building toward the national tournament was something that they were trying to achieve.
“From the first day of school until the playoff game, all we talked about was going to Michigan,” said Howard on getting back to the national tournament that was being held in Port Huron, Mich. “After hosting the national tournament for the last three years, we wanted to get back into it.
“This is one of those years that I loved coming to practice,” continued the coach. “They are fun to be around. They are really close-knit. When someone was down, we had their back and picked them up. This was a great team.”
One of the things that makes the team special is that the team is from a close proximity from Harrison.
“Other teams in the national tournament have players from all over the country,” said the coach. “Not us. We have 12 of the 14 that are within a couple of hours from our campus. I am blessed that we can win with local talent. That is one thing that makes Northark special.”
Even though the team will go out on a winning note, Howard will make sure the team has a memory about its accomplishment.
“We are going to do something special,” he said “When this stuff is over, we have some plans for them. It is hard to get to the national tournament and I realize that. To be one of the top 16 teams in the nation is special. We are going to make them feel special.”
Team members of the Lady Pioneers are: Casey Wallace, Spokane, Mo.; Savanna Collins, Springdale; Saqueena Morgan, Newport; Chaney Scott, Monticello; Madison Moore, Valley Springs; Tori Hayes, Perryville; Cheyenne Shelton, Mountain View; Leah Shellnut, Jasper; Kelcee Hopper, Berryville; Abby Dean, Alpena; Baylea Smith, Berryville; Katie Roubique, Timbo; Samantha Skaggs, Decatur; and Brooklyn Schmelter, Perryville.
Bobby Howard is the head coach and Maya Hood is the assistant coach. Anne Mitchell and Cambre McCullough are team managers.