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Thursday, May 5, 2016

From humble origins, a champion is born

Friday, March 14, 2008

Kyle McCandlis remembers it all too well.

His first year of junior-high basketball at Izard County.

The year his seventh-grade Cougars' squad found the win column two times.

Two times for the whole year.

"Miserable," McCandlis said of his introduction to junior-high hoops.

And while he probably had some fleeting thoughts of throwing in the towel and concentrating just on baseball, McCandlis refused to budge.

"I had faith in Coach Harmon. He told us if we stuck with it and worked harder, we'd get there some day. And here we are," McCandlis said.

And now that faith in Coach Harmon has paid off with a state championship.

"It's a dream. You dream it as a kid, and when it happens it's unbelievable. It's just a great feeling," the senior guard said after Izard County knocked off Nevada County in the state championship game.

And Harmon, too, remembers those lean days for his crop of seniors on this year's roster (McCandlis, Dustin Noblin, Steven Walker, Jeremy Burns, Bubba Johnson, Curtis Clark and Scott Small).

"This group right here, when they were seventh-graders, they only won two ballgames total. And then they bounced back their eighth-grade year and won 20 games; their ninth-grade year 24. And then as sophomores, they came in and maybe surprised some people and won 24 games. So that bullseye was kind of on our chest last year, and we won 30 ballgames and got beat by the eventual state champion, Fayetteville Christian," the coach said. "We felt like coming into this year, we were the best team in Class A. And that's one of the things we talked about all year long. It wasn't being conceited or anything like that, it's just a belief, and if you're going to be state champions, you have to believe that way. I told these kids after the loss to Fayetteville Christian (in the state quarterfinals) that we were going to get back and we're going to get a step further and have a chance to win this thing. And they believed and went out and got it done."

And the turnaround from winning two games as seventh-graders to a state title as seniors was aided by a pair of talented transfers who now call Izard County home -- sophomore Spencer Caraway and junior Chase Massey.

Caraway, who transferred in last season after playing his eighth-grade year in Batesville, moved up to the senior-high team at Izard County at Christmas last year, gaining valuable playing time as a freshman.

Massey, a high-flying 6-0 forward, was a starter at Mount Pleasant last year before transferring to Izard County this season.

And according to Harmon, the sometimes-tricky issue of chemistry when two good players move in from the outside, has been a non-issue for the Cougars.

"Spencer came from Batesville two years ago and Chase moved in from Mount Pleasant last year, and one thing these two kids have done is fit in with the rest of our kids," he said. "Our kids have welcomed them in with arms wide open and Chase and Spence both came in believing in what we do, and believing in the team effort. Sometimes you get kids that are a little bit selfish, but that's not been the case with them. They've really stepped in well and have been accepted well. We're tickled to death to have these kids here."

Caraway, too, feels the transition has been a smooth one.

"It's great. I came in here last year and these guys welcomed me in and I felt comfortable playing with everybody," said Caraway. "And we have a lot of seniors in our locker room that are real leaders. Chase was a leader on the team he came from. They just really made us feel comfortable here from the beginning."

Ask Harmon, who has a career record of 402-263 overall, 306-205 in 14 years at Izard County, where this team ranks with the others he's coached, and the answer comes back lightning-quick.

"Without a doubt, the best team I've ever had," he said.

Hard to argue with that, coach.

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