Top Arkansas sports stories of 2012:

NO. 3: HIGH EXPECTATIONS, HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT

By: The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012
John L. Smith said he regrets he couldn't have helped Arkansas' team to more wins in 2012.
Photo by Benjamin Krain
John L. Smith said he regrets he couldn't have helped Arkansas' team to more wins in 2012.

— Smith can’t hoist Hogs after Petrino firing

John L. Smith seemed like a logical choice to carry on the Arkansas football program’s momentum after Bobby Petrino’s fall from grace.

Smith had been Petrino’s mentor for parts of his career, he had worked with all but one member of the 2012 Arkansas coaching staff, and he had a rapport with the Razorbacks players after serving as Petrino’s assistant from 2009 through December 2011.

His return as interim head coach April 23, four months after leaving Petrino’s staff to take over as head coach at Weber State, was seen as a caretaker’s position for a team good enough to run on autopilot.

Wrong.

Smith’s financial crisis, revealed in July, and his impending bankruptcy hung over the entire season. When an injury to quarterback Tyler Wilson and injuries to other key players cost the Razorbacks a 34-31 loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Week 2, Arkansas’ season spiraled downward to a 4-8 finish, tying for the most losses in school history.

“I thought it was the right fit,” Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long said. “I thought it was the right way to keep this staff together ... keep the system together.

“It goes to show you that it is a complicated mix to have a successful football team. As it turned out, John L. wasn’t the piece that allowed us to reach our potential.”

Smith, working with a 10-month contract that expires Feb. 23, was reassigned the day after Arkansas’ season ended with a 20-13 home loss to LSU.

  • Tom Murphy

NO. 4: ARKANSAS STATE’S ENCORE PERFORMANCE

Red Wolves win another title, lose another coach

Arkansas State Coach Gus Malzahn had a red stain running from his shoulder to just above his hip, a splotch where an ice-laden sports drink had been dumped on his head.

“It was cold, I’ll tell you what,” Malzahn said. “I couldn’t call the final play.”

Red Wolves fans easily forgave Malzahn’s slacking off on that day. ASU was in the midst of celebrating its second consecutive outright Sun Belt Conference football title after a 45-0 thrashing of Middle Tennessee.

The victory gave ASU consecutive conference titles for the first time since 1985-1986, when it competed in what used to be known as NCAA Division I-AA, 19 victories in a two-year span and back-to-back bowl trips for the first time since three consecutive trips to the Pecan Bowl from 1968-1970.

ASU peaked over the course of its Sun Belt schedule, reeling off seven consecutive victories as Malzahn’s offense averaged 482.6 yards and 41.1 points per game, with quarterback Ryan Aplin leading the way.

A looming date Jan. 6 against No. 25 Kent State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl represents a return to Mobile, Ala., as well as setting a benchmark for what the Red Wolves hope is the sign of continued rising fortunes.

But the departure of Malzhan for Auburn, a move mirroring Hugh Freeze’s exit to Ole Miss one year earlier, complicates the future for ASU, which will enter the 2013 season with its fourth coach in four seasons after it named Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to that position Dec. 12.

  • Matthew Harris

NO. 5: STACY LEWIS, LPGA PLAYER OF THE YEAR Ex-Razorback breaks 18-year foreign stranglehold

Former Arkansas Razorbacks golfer Stacy Lewis stamped herself as something special in her fourth season on the LPGA Tour.

Lewis, 27, was named LPGA Player of the Year, a significant honor on its own, but especially notable considering that Lewis became the first American golfer to win the award since Beth Daniel 18 years ago, a period dominated by Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, Australia’s Karrie Web, Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa and an Asian invasion that has forced U.S. women to take a back seat on the world stage.

Lewis combined brilliance and consistency on her way to the top, making 25 cuts in 26 events, posting 4 victories, 3 runner-up finishes and 15 top-10 finishes en route to earning $1,872,409 to finish third on the LPGA money list.

She didn’t win a major, like she did in 2011 when she took the Kraft Nabisco in the spring and rose to No. 10 in the world, but Lewis recently told the Golf Channel she found motivation when opening the 2012 season with hardly anyone talking about her as a favorite in the game’s biggest events.

“It does put a little bit of a chip on your shoulder,” Lewis said. “Even last year, I got a little bit overlooked. It was definitely motivation coming into this year.”

By the time she locked up Player of the Year honors in November with one tournament to spare, Lewis was grateful and proud.

“I wanted to do it for the tour,” Lewis said. “I wanted to do it for all the other American girls, just for everybody, to get that pressure off. It’s a ton of pressure. You’ve got the expectations of yourself and your country and your other players.”

  • Jeff Halpern

NO. 6: HOW ’BOUT THEM OMAHOGS

Defense, pitching carry Arkansas to World Series

Arkansas made it to the College World Series the hard way, going on the road and winning a regional at Rice and a super regional at Baylor with superb pitching from its starters and bullpen, solid defense and timely hitting.

The Razorbacks beat Baylor 1-0 in 10 innings in the third game of their super regional.

“At this level, 1-0 in extra innings to go to Omaha, I don’t know if it gets any better,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. “I know baseball purists probably love this game.

“As a coach, it was very stressful. Thank goodness it’s over.”

Arkansas beat Kent State 8-1 to open the College World Series, then ended South Carolina’s 22-game NCAA Tournament winning streak by beating the two-time defending national champion Gamecocks 2-1.

South Carolina came back to beat the Razorbacks 2-0 and 3-2 to end their season at 46-22. The 3-2 loss was especially frustrating for Arkansas because South Carolina drew nine walks and the Razorbacks believed they were squeezed by a tight strike zone.

“I don’t blame them for anything,” Van Horn said of his pitchers. “I think that’s just the way it is. That’s just the way the game works. Sometimes baseball is just not a fair game.”

  • Bob Holt

NO. 7: STATE OF SUCCESS

UAPB, UCA, Henderson capture conference titles

Arkansas’ smaller-sized college football programs rose to unprecedented heights in 2012, with three schools winning conference championships at the FCS and Division II levels and a fourth program, Harding, earning a postseason trip.

FCS schools Central Arkansas (Southland) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Southwestern Athletic) won their respective conferences while Division II Henderson State went 10-0 in the regular season en route to its first Great American Conference title and Harding made the Division II playoffs as an at-large team.

UCA shared the Southland Conference title with Sam Houston State, a team the Bears beat 24-20 on Sept. 22 in Conway. The Bears finished 9-3 after losing at Georgia Southern 24-16 in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

“We keep knocking on the door,” UCA Coach Clint Conque said. “Sooner or later, we’re going to punch the damn thing through.”

UAPB (10-2) won the SWAC West Division and came back from a 21-7 deficit to stun Jackson State 24-21 in overtime Dec. 8 in the SWAC Championship Game in Birmingham, Ala. Tyler Strickland’s 26-yard field goal won it for UAPB, which earned its first SWAC title since 1966 and sealed the program’s first 10-victory season.

“When you’re dealing with destiny, you can’t change it,” UAPB Coach Monte Coleman said. “When God’s favor is on you, it’s on you, and his favor has been with this football team.”

Henderson State’s 2012 season ended in the second round of the Division II playoffs with a 45-21 loss to Missouri Western in Arkadelphia. The Reddies (10-1) made the postseason for the first time since 1985 when it was still an NAIA member.

  • Jeremy Muck

NO. 8: UA, UALR WOMEN PLAY WAY TO NCAA

Razorbacks, Trojans enjoy unexpected success

The UALR women’s basketball team wasn’t expected to advance to its third consecutive NCAA Tournament last spring, and the Arkansas women’s basketball team wasn’t expected to advance to its first NCAA Tournament in nine years.

By March, they were the only college teams in Arkansas playing in the postseason.

UALR, which had seen its most heralded senior class exit the previous season after back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament, was picked to win the Sun Belt West Division, but few expected the Trojans to challenge Middle Tennessee in the conference tournament.

But led by freshman guard Taylor Gault of Conway, UALR beat Middle Tennessee in overtime in the Sun Belt Conference title game to earn a third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid, this time as a No. 14 seed and first round NCAA Tournament host at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock.

UALR was no match for third-seeded Delaware, losing 73-42 in front of 3,466 on its home court, as Delaware’s star forward Elena Della Donne scored 39 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.

“It’s fun to watch her play,” UALR Coach Joe Foley said after the game. “It’s no fun to coach against her, but it’s fun to watch her play, there’s no doubt.”

Arkansas, which was picked seventh in the SEC before the season, extended its stay in the NCAA Tournament a bit longer. The Razorbacks beat Dayton 72-55 in the first round in College Station, Texas, but lost to Texas A&M, led by former Arkansas Coach Gary Blair, 61-59 in the second round.

Arkansas, a No. 6 seed, trailed No. 3 seed Texas A&M by 13 points with less than eight minutes remaining, but rallied for a 19-5 run to take a 59-58 lead with 1:21 left. Texas A&M’s Ashley Daniels made two free throws with 23.5 seconds left to give it a lead and an eventual victory, ending the Razorbacks’ season at 24-9.

“We started a tremendous rivalry with Arkansas,” Blair said after the game, alluding to Texas A&M’s impending move to the SEC. “That’s the way it’s going to be all the time.”

  • Troy Schulte

NO. 9: HAIL JUNCTION CITY, KUDOS TO ALL Title games marked with dramatic finishes

The average margin of victory in the six Arkansas high school football state championship games was 10.3 points.

That’s a bit misleading since five of the six games were in doubt late in the fourth quarter, with two decided in the closing seconds.

Junction City might have produced the greatest finish in finals history,beating Bearden 27-26 for the Class 2A championship.

The Dragons trailed 26-21 after sophomore Bearden quarterback Jamond Young scrambled 35 yards for a touchdown on fourth down with 53 seconds left in the game.

Junction City was down to its final play - fourth down from the Bearden 30 with 0.9 seconds left - when senior quarterback Shaquille Hunter threw a pass toward the end zone that was intended for junior wide receiver Jarkell Brown. Instead, the pass was deflected into the hands of senior wide receiver Dorian Evans for the game-winning touchdown.

Harding Academy beat Glen Rose 49-45 to win the Class 3A title, scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 20-yard pass from senior quarterback Will Francis to senior wide receiver Caleb Spears with six seconds remaining.

Fayetteville beat Bentonville 31-20 to win its second consecutive Class 7A state championship.

Leading 24-20, the Bulldogs put the game out of reach on senior Cole Harris’ 34-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:56 remaining.

Greenwood edged Pine Bluff 51-44 to claim the Class 6A championship, its third consecutive state championship and 38th consecutive victory overall.

Camden Fairview won its first state championship with a 28-10 victory over Batesville in the Class 5A final.

Stuttgart beat Ozark 28-7 to win the Class 4A championship.

  • Robert Yates

NO. 10: EVERYBODY STILL LIKES MIKE, RIGHT?

Anderson’s first season back includes ups, downs

When Arkansas beat No. 25 Vanderbilt 82-74 on Jan. 31 to improve to 16-0 at Walton Arena, the Razorbacks had the look of a possible NCAA Tournament team in Mike Anderson’s first season as their coach.

Arkansas’ 16-6 record at the time was especially impressive considering the Razorbacks lost star forward Marshawn Powell to a season-ending knee injury after two games and at times were down to eight healthy scholarship players.

But victories over No. 20 Michigan and Vanderbilt proved to be the Razorbacks’ highlights. They went 2-8 in their final 10 games and lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament for the third consecutive year, 70-54 to LSU, to finish 18-14.

“We feel like coming into the season most people didn’t think we would win 18 games, especially with Marshawn going down and Coach’s system being installed for the first year,” said guard BJ Young, who earned All-SEC honors as a freshman. “I think we had, overall, a pretty good season.”

Arkansas got a big victory in April when Young decided to return for his sophomore season rather than enter the NBA Draft.

With the return of Young and Powell, who has recovered from knee surgery, Anderson is looking for continued progress in his second season at Arkansas. In nine seasons as the coach at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri, he led teams to the NCAA Tournament six times.

“It’s a process and I’ve been there before, done that, and it will take time,” Anderson said after last season ended. “But it will happen. Trust me, it will.”

  • Bob Holt

NO. 11: TINSLEY DRAPED IN SILVER Little Rock hurdler enjoys Olympic success

Michael Tinsley was the state’s best hurdler in high school, the country’s best hurdler in college and nearly the world’s best hurdler at the London Olympics.

Tinsley, a Little Rock native, won the silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles when he ran a personal-best 47.91 seconds. Tinsley, 28, finished second to the Dominican Republic’s Felix Sanchez (47.63), the 2004 Olympic champion.

Tinsley recorded the fastest time by an American this year and beat 2008 Olympic champion Angelo Taylor in winning the U.S. Olympic trials (48.33).

“I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I bought my first pair of spikes,” Tinsley said after the race. “I put my life into this. I’ve had to sacrifice so much for this, I’m so proud.”

The third- and fourth-place finishers in the trials, Kerron Clement and Bershawn “Batman” Jackson, were second and third, respectively, in the 2008 Olympics.

Tinsley’s previous best time of 48.02 came in 2007, a year after he won the NCAA title (48.25) as a senior at Jackson State, where he was a three time All-American.

Tinsley graduated from Little Rock’s Pulaski Robinson High School in 2002. As a senior at Robinson, Tinsley narrowly missed setting an overall record in the 300 hurdles at the Meet of Champs (winning with a hand-time of 37.3) and also was the Class AAAA champion in the event.

Tinsley was ranked No. 10 in the world in the 400 hurdles in 2006 and 2011 by Track and Field News.

  • Robert Yates

Sports, Pages 30 on 12/30/2012

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