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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Basketball a way of life for legendary coach

Thursday, June 13, 2002

RCHITECT OF CHAMPIONS: Thednal Hill displays the trophy given to him by the 2002 Highland Lady Rebels to commemorate their state championship.
State championships in high school sports do not grow on trees. In Arkansas, under the guidance of the Arkansas Activities Association, high schools are grouped into five classifications based on school size and enrollment figures. In basketball this means that out of the 354 high schools in the state competing for a title, 10 are crowned champions each season, five on the girls' side, and five on the boys' side.

With odds like that, it was a special treat on March 9, 2002, when two schools located within 50 miles of each other brought home state titles to their fans.

The Highland Lady Rebels unseated the two-time defending champion Ozark Lady Hillbillies for the Class AAA crown, while the Viola Longhorns earned the right to be called champion by defeating the Delight Bulldogs.

In attendance as part of the 4,000 spectators at the Pine Bluff Convention Center on that day was a figure legendary not only in the sports history of Highland and Viola, but one who left his mark in the record book of girls' basketball in the state of Arkansas as well.

Thednal Hill, architect of two state titles at Viola and one at Highland, thoroughly enjoyed what he witnessed in Pine Bluff.

"I was thrilled to see both teams win titles on the same day this year," said Hill. "It's good to see teams from north Arkansas win, especially since I have so many friends at Highland and Viola and I coached at both schools."

Hill did more than just coach girls' basketball at Highland and Viola.

He won games. Lots of games.

With a record of 1,063-122 spanning his 34 years in high school coaching, Hill is the winningest girls' basketball coach in the history of Arkansas. Through 2001, Barbra Gilliam of Drew Central is second on the career victory list with 761 wins.

From 1952 to 1986, Hill's average season was a record of 31-4 with an incredible winning percentage of .885.

The game of girls' basketball during most of Hill's tenure in coaching hardly resembled today's game.

The style of six-on-six basketball, with three players on offense at one end, and three players on defense on the other end of the court, was favored by Hill.

"I liked six-girl basketball," commented Hill. "It gave you the opportunity to have one more of your best offensive players on the court, for example, another guard that might not have been in the game if it were five-on-five. People in the stands like to see the ball go through the basket. It gets them excited. It gets me going too. I really enjoyed coaching offense," he said.

A big influence on the way Hill coached was the style of Floyd Blevins.

"He not only was my basketball coach when I was in high school at Violet Hill, he was also instrumental in getting me to come to Viola to coach," said Hill. "He ended up coaching the boys at Viola for awhile, and I coached the girls. I really admired Coach Blevins."

It was at Viola that Hill coached his first state championship team in 1959.

"We had a good group of shooters and we beat Parkin for the state title in '59," remembered Hill.

The theme of coaching good offense and teaching shooting skills was a consistent factor of Hill's coaching career.

This was the case as the Viola girls won their second title with a victory over Greenbrier in 1961, and according to Hill, came close to making it back-to-back titles by winning it in 1962.

"We came awful close to winning it again in '62, but a couple bounces of the ball went against us," said Hill.

After coaching 18 years at Viola, Hill moved on to coach the Highland Lady Rebels.

This move led to a third state title for Hill coming in a 1973 victory over Nashville.

Things came full circle in 2002 as two members of the 1973 Lady Rebels, Kim (Tucker) Sample and Sandy (Golden) Murphy, cheered on as their daughters, Allyson Sample and Ginger Murphy, brought home a state title this year.

This was the first title for the Lady Rebels since 1973.

"The key to winning a title is for the team to peak at the right time of the year," said Hill. "The Viola boys and Highland girls both peaked at the right time this year. I thought they both played their best games of the year in Pine Bluff, which is what you want as a coach. Both teams had a good balance of inside and outside scoring," commented Hill.

With the type of scorers he coached, would Hill have liked to have had the 3-point arc as part of the game he was involved in?

"I love the 3-point shot," said a smiling Hill. "With some of the girls we had, we would have absolutely worn the net out. It not only makes the game more fun to play, but people in the stands love to see the ball go in the basket from outside. I had some really excellent shooters."

Hill coached his last game in 1986, but continues to miss the daily routine associated with coaching.

"I really enjoyed working with young people. The harder I worked, the harder they worked," said Hill. "I also miss being with the faculty. I've made lots of lifelong friends by being involved with high school athletics."

These days Hill gives most of his attention to his cattle farm in Viola, although he still finds plenty of time to follow local sports action.

"Most of the coaches in the surrounding areas send me a schedule of their games at the start of the year, and then I take those and make a schedule of games I want to attend. I still love basketball and I believe it helps keep a fellow young to go to games," said Hill.

While he enjoys going to high school games and keeps up with college ball as well, Hill doesn't care much for professional basketball.

"Pro ball is too near perfection. I enjoy high school and college games so much more where strategy is involved," said Hill.

Even though he doesn't prefer the pro game, when asked how he would coach against a player the size of Shaq O'Neil, Hill responded by saying "He's a big fellow. You have to defense his offense by making him play defense on the other end. And you send your team defense right at him."

Once a coach, always a coach.

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