FOUKE, Ark.—Based off its record, Fouke's girls basketball team is having one of its best seasons in school history.
However, those closest to the program know the obstacles and adversity, which transcend beyond the hardwood and scoreboard, the Lady Panthers have endured and continue to fight through this late in the season.
Fouke head coach Mo Williams, who along with assistant Cody Powell, has transformed the program into one of the winningest over the past few years, admits that this year, more than probably any other, has meant much more than the win-loss column.
"What a lot of people don't realize about our girls, and even our coaching staff, is that they've adjusted to the all changes this season," Williams said. "They've finally got to where they know we have to play a different way now, and they've just kept winning. We've had a lot closer games; we've had to win some games with five or six players because of some injuries and other factors.
"The fact that we have faced so much adversity and still are, it has really made them closer as a team. They play harder, you can tell they play for each other, and I tell them all the time I am so impressed with their ability to adapt and conquer these hurdles that present themselves."
The Lady Panthers are 22-5 entering the district tournament this week. They were ranked No. 7 in last week's Class 3A poll and started the year No. 5 in the preseason poll.
"I really thought this was going to be our year; I thought we were a better team this year than even last year," Williams said. "And we've had a good year, but it just hasn't felt like it with all they've had to deal with and overcome.
"It's hard to argue that this isn't a good year, it's just different than how I imagined it and how it has been over the last two or three years."
Fouke has five members of its senior class, including Crysta Larey, who reached 1,000 career points early this season before suffering a season-ending injury in a tournament. River Watkins, Whitney McMurry, Laykin Smallwood and Alyssa Caudle are the other seniors.
"Crysta has been the motor and heartbeat of this team since she's been playing," the coach said. "Whitney is one who does all the little things that go unnoticed: she's the fighter and in the trenches game in and game out. I would have to say she has been our backbone because she holds everyone around her up.
"Alyssa moved in and hadn't played basketball (before her junior year)," Williams added. "But she really worked hard during the summer and the offseason, and she's stepped in when we've needed her and answered that bell."
The three juniors still with the program from an undefeated junior high team two years ago are Mallory Oliver, Jade Perry and Taylor Hardin.
The players' central theme has been hard work and teamwork.
"These kids have put a lot of heart and blood and sweat into this program," Powell said. "And this program has turned around because of their effort and their character. You don't hear this term a lot with girls; it's a term you hear more with guys. Trench guys, guys you would go to war with. We've been through a lot of wars with these girls, on and off the court. They just find ways to persevere, all the time.
"The camaraderie in this group is what's made this team."
Williams, who took over the boys program this school year, also, and will have coached 131 basketball games combined at every level for both boys and girls through the district tournament, reminds his players that there is a bigger picture to be aware of.
"I know we all fall short and make mistakes, on and off the court," Williams said. "And we are always trying to and want to win. But as a coach, what I really want our players to understand when it's all said and done is that our identity is not in basketball or the wins and the losses. Our identity is in Christ, and that is who we are striving to represent each day as people and a program."
Below are some of the girls' ideas on the success, trials and future of the team.
River Watkins, guard
"This has been our life for six years," Watkins said. "I think we put in a lot of work that other teams don't, and that's led to our success. Our coaches teach us things about life and basketball.
"We got a taste of success our sophomore year—we made it back to state after 28 years—and ever since then we've wanted to win."
Whitney McMurry, guard
"We have to put in work every day, and we make sure we give God all the glory," McMurry said about the success of the program. "We work as a team to overcome all the obstacles we have to face.
"I make sure I'm putting in hard work everyday, and I want to make sure my teammates are doing the same thing. When my teammates are doing OK, it helps me think that I'm OK. We have to work together to make sure that we're all prepared."
Laykin Smallwood, forward
"Whenever Crysta went down, we were all devastated; I love Crysta, we all love Crysta," Smallwood said. "She let us know that she had to have surgery. We all prayed for her, and we prayed that we would be OK and come together as a team.
"We have a lot of good players coming up, a lot of tough players who are still growing. They're getting faster and stronger everyday. We practice with them everyday, and they're sweet kids. They work hard and are very unselfish. I feel like the program is going to be OK after we graduate."
Crysta Larey, guard
"At the start of the year, we weren't as motivated and dedicated, but after going through all the hardships that we have, it's given us more of a drive to do better, work harder and push themselves.
"The past two years we've made it to state but lost the first round. We all want to get over that hump and make it to at least the second round of state."
Alyssa Caudle, guard
"We always work hard," Caudle said about the key to the team's success. "I came from a school that wasn't really about basketball. When I got here it was a little overwhelming with everything we had, as far as the plays and techniques we were taught, but I've never seen a group of kids work that hard. We eat, sleep and breath basketball 24/7.
"This year we don't have as many girls, and so everybody had to step up and take on different roles. I think our defense will be key (to making a run in the playoffs), we stick together and everyone just play hard."
Taylor Hardin, guard
"This team is my family; we hardly ever disagree and take up for each other," Hardin said. "It's more of a family than a team. A lot of it (overcoming the adversity) is that we want to play for each other. None of us like to lose, and we use these obstacles as motivation to work harder and play hard.
"In the future, the girls will have to just keep working. The younger girls will have to live in the gym and do all the shots we had to do to get to where we're at now."