Amongst the laughter and joy at the retirement celebration of former Union coach Gary Don Smith and his wife Pat, there was also a tinge of sadness. Former players, teachers, students and Cyclone supporters gathered in the building that used to be Union’s high school cafeteria.
As people flipped through the scrapbooks of photographs and watched the video slideshow, a few wondered aloud, “What if?”
In what was, essentially, their final season, the Lady Cyclones went 33-6 and advanced to the Class 2A state semifinals, losing to Harding Academy 40-33. Union, which had gone 34-5 and lost in the state championship game the previous year, returned all five starters from that team.
Or, it would’ve.
The Lady Cyclones disbanded after being consolidated into El Dorado’s district.
“Oh, I mean, regularly I think about the government shutting down all these small schools,” Smith said. “That was great basketball, I mean great basketball. And yeah, I’d liked to have had that team one more time.”
Of course, the Lady Cyclones weren’t the only casualties. Union County also lost schools in Huttig and Mt. Holly, Later, Norphlet would consolidate with Smackover.
Athletically, no sport took a bigger hit than basketball. Schools with names like Mount Pleasant, Van-Cove, Delta, Parkdale, McNeil, Waldo, Altheimer, Magnolia-Walker, Saratoga, Delight, Carthage, Wickes, Gould, Stephens and Wabbaseka were known as hotbeds for girls’ and boys’ basketball. It was in some cases, literally, the only sport offered. In the early 80s, there was Wilmar, Violet Hill, Grady, Holly Grove and Plumerville cutting down the nets at the end of the season.
None of those schools exist anymore. The sport of basketball misses them dearly.
“They all claimed the big schools would be better (after consolidation). They were better for two or three years because they got all the little small-school starters so they got depth,” Smith said. “But now, all of a sudden, these kids have got to ride 20 and 30 miles to school on a bus. They ain’t playing ball no more so now you’ve got the same big-school basketball that they always had. All these kids on the outside, I’d say 90 percent of them are not playing ball anymore.”
Small schools that only played basketball were at a numbers disadvantage. But in basketball, a team only needed six or seven players so the lack of numbers weren’t as much of an issue. And the fact they only played one sport year-round became a huge advantage against their football-playing counterparts.
Small-school basketball was good … real good. Football-playing schools had to invest in quality coaching just to compete, which pushed basketball to a higher level across the board.
Small-school basketball featured legendary coaches like Smith, Mt. Holly’s Lynwood Cathey, Huttig’s Billie Gathright, Kingsland’s Tommy Harper and Emerson’s Ron Pennington, among others. The quality of coaching showed in the play on the court.
“It is a special thing to get to have the same coach your whole school life,” said Union graduate Janie (Bell) Looney. “From pee wee basketball in the fourth grade until the 12th, same coach the entire time is huge. Kids don’t get that nowadays.”
There was also a different kind of pride. In those tiny towns, the high school was the residents' primary focus. The attention was on the local teams, which amped up the pressure to succeed.
“There was a sense of tradition and pride in basketball that really transcended the game itself. It reflected to the school and the community,” said Gathright, who coached Huttig to a state championship in 1987. “There was also a bond among the players that lasts through the years. I have former players that are Eagles for life. Even though the physical school is gone, their pride still remains because of basketball.”
It was different, completely different.
Former Union player Jeni (Saunders) Martin stood in Union’s old gymnasium and tried to explain to her daughter Kallie what it was like, playing games in front of packed stands filled with rabid fans. Eric Poole, another former Cyclone, described the overflow crowds with fans jammed into the lobby because they couldn’t get into the gymnasium.
The old-school coaches also employed strategy and player-specific scouting reports. And, coaches had to make do with the limited numbers of athletes.
“(Coach Smith) was excellent at taking the ball players he was given and creating a style and game plan to fit those girls,” said Martin. “Many coaches try to make their personnel fit into a game style that doesn’t work for them. Coach Smith was very crafty when it came to putting players in positions where they could perform best. Many of his teams wouldn’t look like the most athletic team when they stepped on the floor to tip off. But boy were looks deceiving.”
Perhaps the biggest loss regarding basketball at those small schools was the passion, both from the court and the stands. Gymnasiums were routinely jam-packed for big games. It’s not that way anymore.
And, players that only had the one sport, put everything they had onto the court.
“All we knew was basketball at Union. It was all we had. It was our life and we poured our hearts into it every time we stepped on the court,” said Looney. “Team is what we were. Today, even with Drue and her group, it is all about who does the best. Who scores the most? That’s all they care about. If I was off with my 3-pointers, Tonya (Davis) darn sure better drive and score 20, same for Jeni. I may be mad at myself for sucking it up that night but super proud my girls did what they could do to get the job done. The team work ethic and relationships he instilled in us. Our ball days was our FACEBOOK. That was our social media.”