The message was clear.
"9 games to win the state championship."
Returning from Highland late in the night Feb. 8, after the Izard County Cougars had dropped their last regular-season game to the Class 4A Rebels, that was the message that Kyle McCandlis scrawled on the board in the Cougars' locker room.
Realizing the regular season was a distant memory at that point, McCandlis wanted to make sure his teammates understood what really mattered on that dark February night: the Class 1A state championship. Focus for nine more games and the prize of a lifetime would be theirs.
And sure enough, Izard County did just that. The Cougars ran the post-season table, winning the district, regional and finally the state tournament with a 60-51 victory over Nevada County in Hot Springs, earning the school in Brockwell its first-ever state title in basketball.
McCandlis, unquestionably one of the leaders on that talented Cougars squad, now gets the chance to continue his basketball career at Williams Baptist College. He signed a letter of intent to play for the school in Walnut Ridge after Izard County's athletic awards night May 23.
According to Izard County Head Coach David Harmon, McCandlis' worth to the Cougars' basketball program is hard to put a price on.
"He's sure meant a lot (to Izard County basketball). He's the type of kid that would do whatever I wanted him to do," Harmon said. "The things I would tell him he needed to work on, he'd do. He'd make sure he got in the gym and took care of those things. He's been a wonderful leader for us and a great student-athlete. He's just been a wonderful kid to be around."
This year alone, McCandlis was named All-Conference, All-Regional, All-State, All-State Tournament, as he will play for the East team in the annual Arkansas High School Coaches Association All-Star Basketball Game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. McCandlis also notched a first for Izard County High School, becoming the first Cougar to land on the All-Arkansas team, a squad made up of the best players in the state, selected by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. McCandlis earned third team honors. McCandlis posted 14.2 points per game, while averaging 2.8 assists and two steals an outing for Izard County.
The accolades that McCandlis netted this season don't surprise Harmon, who knew the standout had a ton of talent in him from a young age.
"We knew he was going to be a special player back when he was young," he said. "But he has become one of the deadliest 3-point shooters in this part of the state. A lot of times when teams are preparing for us, they're trying to figure out ways to stop Kyle, so he doesn't get hot in the game. And what that's done, is make his teammates better. When the defense starts looking for Kyle, that frees up some other kids for some easy opportunities."
McCandlis was also a standout baseball player for the Cougars as a shortstop and pitcher. He earned All-State honors on the baseball diamond and won the Cougars' offensive award, along with a Gold Glove, for his play this year.
And while the transition from high school athletics to college athletics can sometimes be daunting, Harmon thinks McCandlis is built to have success in the long haul at Williams Baptist College.
"He might not come in as a freshman and make an immediate impact -- it's hard to go from this level to the next -- but I think if he stays with it for four years, Coach (Jeff, WBC Head Coach) Rider and I talk a lot, we both think he has a chance to be a special player at Williams Baptist during those four years," Harmon said. "Kyle, I think, will probably play the 2 (shooting guard) at Williams. I think he could play the point if needed, but I think with the way he shoots, the 2 will be his spot."