Because of the timing of her enrollment at Bryant High School after transferring from Conway for her junior year, Cayla McDowell was ineligible to play varsity softball and basketball. But she stuck with it, played in junior varsity games, kept practicing and making progress.
It started paying off on her summer softball team before her senior year. And, sure enough, she contributed as a rebounder and inside defender in basketball, supplying some height to a team without much, a team that reached the second round of the Class 7A State Tournament.
In softball, she became the answer to a question Bryant coach Debbie Clark and her staff were seriously pondering regarding who would play first base. In 15 games so far, she’s hitting .418 with 23 hits including four doubles and a home run, giving her a slugging percentage of .545 for the 13-2 Lady Hornets. She’s driven in 10 runs and scored 10 times. She’s only struck out twice.
And, on Friday, April 24, McDowell found herself somewhere she probably only dreamed about when she was sitting out that junior year. Joined by her parents Diane Sanders and Caleb McDowell, the rest of her family along with many of her teammates from both teams, she signed a letter of intent to continue her education and softball career at Lyon College in Batesville.
“It was really hard to sit the bench or sit in the dugout and watch my team play, knowing that I could contribute but I wasn’t allowed to,” McDowell said. “What kept me going was knowing that it was either stick it out or it was over. So I knew I had to stick it out for my team and wait for this year to play.”
“We spent a lot of time last year, side by side, in bucket sessions,” Clark said. “That (sitting out) is so hard when you are a competitive athlete. It’s hard when you’re injured to sit out but it’s hard when you are healthy and you know you could be on that field contributing, on that court contributing, and yet there’s an organization that says that you can’t.
“I’m so very proud for Cayla and excited for our program,” the coach added. “She’s the first Lady Hornet to commit to the Lady Scots. Lyon is an incredible academic institution. They have an up-and-coming softball program.”
The Lyon softball team is a member of the American Midwest Conference at the NAIA level. Under first-year head coach Elliott Sampley, an alum who was named to the Lyon Athletic Hall of Fame for his baseball career, had his team in first place in the conference this season and among those getting votes for the NAIA Top 25. They’re 24-15.
“We’re excited for (Cayla) to be in the program,” Sampley said. “She obviously gives us an option at first base, very tall, athletic, moves around well, very good defensively and has a lot of potential offensively. She does have some power potential. Hopefully, we can get her in the weight program and maybe put up some more home runs. I really think that she’s capable of doing that.
“Then, student-wise, she fits in at Lyon College having a high ACT and a high GPA,” he added. “She’s just a great student-athlete all the way around. She’s just a perfect fit for what we’re looking to bring in.”
McDowell went to work out at Lyon last fall.
“Last summer was my strongest year in summer ball,” she related. “I hit probably 10 to 14 home runs and went to a lot of tournaments, traveled everywhere.
“I went to workout there in the fall and toured the school. After the workout, (Sampley) said we need you here. We want you to play for us. And they offered me a scholarship. So I verbally committed.”
“We really liked what we saw and offered her on that day,” Sampley acknowledged. “We kept in touch with them then I was able to come watch her play the other night against Vilonia.”
Between the varsity and the JV game at Vilonia, McDowell and Sampley told Clark.
“After our tough learning experience in our varsity game against Vilonia, Cayla and I had another bucket session during the JV game,” Clark said. “We talked about the loss. We talked about how to learn from the loss. And we talked about her signing. I told her how incredibly proud I was of her and that she would be an example for Lady Hornets for years to come.”
McDowell expressed her gratitude to her parents.
“I’ve been playing since 10-and-under, travel ball,” she related. “We’ve been everywhere. My parents always figured out a way to get me where I needed to go and to do everything that I needed. And it’s been really hard. So it just means a lot that my parents supported me through everything no matter what.”
Because of the pause in her career and her subsequent improvement, McDowell had other programs starting to show interest in her.
“I was going to go to the University of Memphis camp this summer,” he mentioned. “If I didn’t decide on Lyon, that was going to be on top of my list.”
But she remained loyal to Sampley and Lyon for showing interest in her early in the process.
“He really reminds me of my old high school coach at Conway and I really loved him,” McDowell said. “And the campus is beautiful and I really liked that he’s rebuilding the program, bringing it back up from the bottom. I really like what he’s doing with the program. He seems like a really great coach. He didn’t have any doubt in his mind that he wanted me at his school. It’s exciting.”
“She hits line drives and she makes her at-bats count,” Clark stated. “And she makes incredible defensive plays at first base. You just ask our third baseman, our shortstop and our second baseman.
“And she’s so kind and patient with our freshmen and younger players,” the coach added. “She teaches and she never complains about working in a group with our JV players.”
As for her education, McDowell said, “At first, I wanted to be a physical therapist but I’ve been in this class, Orientation to Teaching, and it’s really led me toward being a teacher and a coach. So I’m probably going to do Education.”
“That just gives me goose-bumps,” Clark admitted. “She’s a true team player and one of the strongest players I’ve ever coached, mentally, physically and emotionally.”