A testament to their character: Eureka Springs seniors helped turn program around
By Scott Loftis
Five Eureka Springs High School seniors played their final game for the Lady Highlanders on Wednesday in the first round of the Class 2A State Tournament at Quitman High School.
Eureka Springs lost to Bigelow, 53-41, but Lady Highlanders coach Ryan Sanchez said he was proud of how his team responded.
The Lady Highlanders cut a 16-point Bigelow lead midway through the second quarter to three points midway through the third before the Lady Panthers pulled away.
“I was proud of the girls’ resiliency,” Sanchez said.
He was talking about Wednesday’s game, but his statement could apply to the careers of his five seniors. Four of those players — Grayson Ertel, Megan Holloway, Gracie Lester and Katelyn Ross — were part of a Eureka Springs team that went 6-13 during their sophomore season.
Sanchez, a 2014 Eureka Springs graduate, was hired as the Lady Highlanders’ head coach in June 2018.
With Sanchez on the bench — and with the addition of athletic 6-foot forward Shelby Little — the Lady Highlanders turned their program around last season. One year after losing 23 games, Eureka Springs won 23. Along the way, they went 15-2 at home, won the regular-season conference championship and advanced to the regional tournament.
The Lady Highlanders finished 18-15 this season and advanced to the state tournament for the first time in 11 years.
Sanchez said the Eureka Springs players were eager to improve and buy into a winning culture from the moment he was hired.
“It’s all a testament to their character,” he said Thursday. “I told them yesterday, their success was a product of their character and their attitude, more than talent.”
That character was on display against Bigelow as Eureka Springs fought back from a big early deficit. The Lady Highlanders turned the ball over on their first four possessions against the Lady Panthers’ aggressive 1-3-1 zone defense as Bigelow raced out to a 10-0 lead.
After leading 20-9 at the end of the first quarter, Bigelow (28-3) opened the second quarter with an 8-3 run to extend its lead to 28-12. But the Lady Highlanders responded with a 13-2 run to trim the deficit to five by halftime.
Two free throws by Little cut Bigelow’s lead to 30-21 with 43.9 seconds left in the half. Ross made two free throws at the 14.7-second mark to pull the Lady Highlanders within seven, then came up with a steal and a driving layup at the buzzer to make it 30-25.
Eureka Springs got within three points twice in the second half, both on baskets from short range by Little. The second, off a nice pass from Holloway, cut Bigelow’s lead to 32-29 with 4:30 left in the third quarter.
Bigelow regained the momentum, however, with a three-pointer followed by a steal and layup. The Lady Panthers outscored Eureka Springs 13-2 over the next 5:48 to push their lead back to 14 at 45-31 before a Ross three-pointer with 6:42 left in the fourth quarter. Bigelow led by 15 before Little scored the final points of the game on a three-pointer from the left baseline.
Little finished with 20 points to lead the Lady Highlanders.
“They took us out of our rhythm,” Sanchez said of the Lady Panthers. “We never did get in a rhythm offensively. They did a good job of disrupting us.”