State champions: James leads Lady Hornets to title
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the look back at each day in Bryant athletic history has been so favorably received during the time when there was no sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, BryantDaily.com will continueposting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
By ROB PATRICK
HOT SPRINGS — Something strange always happens to the Bryant Lady Hornets when it comes down to the Class AAAAA State championship meet. It’s been injuries, illness, defections, complications with the weather — something, it seems, every year since they last won a State title in 1995.
And 2002 was no different in that regard. The outcome, however, was.
In large part, because freshman Kim Bergen ran despite an upset stomach and battled to finish the race in 30th place, the fifth runner in the Lady Hornets’ scoring quintet, Bryant returned to the top of the hill as champions of Class AAAAA, finishing with 69 points to 76 by second-place Rogers and 100 for defending champion Fayetteville.
“Kim has to get my MVP,” said head coach Danny Westbrook. “She fought through that stomach ailment the whole race.
“It’s the state meet, I don’t know what it is,” Westbrook said of his teams’ history of adversity. “We’ve been talking about that for weeks, expect the unexpected because it’s going to happen at State. And the wind and Kim’s problem — it just happens. But we overcame all that and it worked out.
“It’s such a great group to work with,” he continued. “They train hard. This has been a project since track was over last year. They were real faithful through the summer, real faithful coming to morning runs, Sunday long runs. And the parents are great, the parents that get them here.”
The team was once again led by lone senior Candice James and sophomore Brooke Higgs who both placed in the top 10. James’ fourth-place finish was her best at a State meet performance.
“She hasn’t had a good State meet since her freshman year,” Westbrook noted. “She was 10th her freshman year. She’s been really focused going into this year’s meet, wanting to do well and I’m really happy for her, doing as well as she did. She deserves a ton of credit for this group because she’s the only senior we’ve got, the only experienced runner we have. She just did an awesome leadership job with this group.”
Higgs was right with James, finishing fifth. May Edwards finished 13th joining James and Higgs as all-State performers. Jessica Graham was 18th and will join the other three top Bryant runners on the Arkansas All-Star squad that will compete against the Oklahoma All-Stars on Saturday, Nov. 16, at the University of Arkansas course in Fayetteville.
“Brooke came in and had never run cross country before,” Westbrook mentioned. “She’s run track but that’s a little different animal than cross country. Basically, she just kind of run in Candice’s shadow all year. She was right there. Wherever Candice was, she was and ditto at State.
“It was a team effort,” he continued. “Everybody had to do their job. Mary Edwards, she was a little disappointed that she didn’t get in the top 10 but the wind, I think, affected her. She’s tall and thin, a real high center of gravity, and the wind just knocked her around and it really hurt her some. Jessica Graham has been Miss Consistency all year. I mean, I could count on Jessica doing her job.”
The championship was made more sweet because of the struggles a season ago when Bryant finished a disappointing 10th.
“Going from 10th to first, you don’t see that very often,” Westbrook acknowledged. “But the 10th was very uncharacteristic for us, I think. But that can happen at any State meet. Strange things happen, they always do.”
The Lady Hornets captured the AAAAA-Central conference title just a week before but, at that meet hosted by Bryant at Longhills Golf Club, Westbrook was concerned about his team’s performance.
“We just talked about reducing the gaps, the time gaps that we had in conference,” he related. “I wasn’t real comfortable with those. Mount St. Mary’s, we’d been beating them all year and, boy, they really surprised us at conference. So, I knew compared to how we’d done against them and I knew what to expect with Rogers and Fayetteville, if we had ran that same performance time-wise, then we wouldn’t have been in the ballpark.
“But Candice came through with her best performance of the year and Brooke was right there with her and everybody else did their job.”
Mount St. Mary’s, by the way, finished fourth in the State team competition with 117 points, followed by Lake Hamilton, another Bryant rival.
Bryant’s contingent sophomore Nicole Sample and freshmen Cari Odle, Mikki Eichenberg and Nicole Snyder. All finished in the top 80 in a field of 143 runners.
“That bodes well for the future,” Westbrook agreed, “but you never know what the future holds. Going in, somebody could’ve said, ‘Oh, you’ve got three or four more years to do this,’ but you want to get it done. And we did get it done. We did it the hard way but we got it done.”
For Candice James, it couldn’t have been a better time.