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story.lead_photo.caption Graham Thomas/Herald-Leader Siloam Springs alum and assistant soccer and cross country coach Abby Ray has won 11 state championships in five years of coaching at her alma mater. Ray, seen here with 10 state championship rings — four in girls cross country, four in girls soccer and two in boys soccer — will receive No. 11 and the fifth for girls soccer this fall.

Abby Ray stares at her collection of state championship rings and speaks honestly about how they make her feel.

As a coach, she's happy to have been part of all of these championship teams in both girls and boys soccer and girls cross country.

As an athlete, she would have loved to have had the chance to win just one.

"I would have given just about anything," Ray said. "I would have run through walls for it."

Ray never got that chance as a girls soccer player at Siloam Springs, advancing as far as the state quarterfinals.

But as a coach at her alma mater, there's no doubt Ray and the teams she's helped lead have made the most of their opportunities.

Ray has been a coach on 11 state championship teams at Siloam Springs since joining the district as a teacher/coach in the fall of 2013, with the most recent title coming in May when the girls soccer team won its fifth straight Class 6A state championship.

Ray was an assistant coach on all five of those Lady Panthers championship teams (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018). She also was an assistant coach for boys state titles in 2016 and 2017, and she's helped the girls cross country team win the last four Class 6A state titles (2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017).

Ray is currently in possession of 10 state championship rings and will get her 11th along with the Lady Panthers later this fall. In a way the run of success is mind-boggling to the former Lady Panther standout.

"To be here and it happen every year but one for cross country (2013) and all the years for girls soccer, and boys soccer threw a few in, it's just like, I could have never imagined it," Ray said. "I still don't really grasp how you could be that dominant.

"No I couldn't have imagined that. Because playing here, we dreamed of it. You know, it was our goal every year. We'd get to the quarterfinals, and that was as far as we got when I played."

Ray's playing days

Ray was a standout midfielder for Siloam Springs under head coach Jason Bowen from 2004-2007.

In her four years as a Lady Panther, Ray was named All-Conference twice (2004 and 2007) and All-State twice (2005 and 2006).

Playing alongside other standouts like Sarah Kidd, Kayla Hill, Siloam Springs had a cumulative record of 50-17-7 in Ray's four years, including a conference mark of 21-4-6.

The Lady Panthers were AAAA-West Conference champions twice (2005 and 2006) and league runner-up in 2004.

But Siloam Springs could never solve the riddle of the state soccer tournament, losing twice in the first round (2004 and 2007) and twice more in the quarterfinals (2005 and 2006).

"Every year we lost at state in the early rounds," Ray said. "I was devastated. I'm not a crier, and I would cry every single year because it was over. I say sometimes that the girls play soccer and the boys breathe soccer. I breathe soccer. So when we lost it knocked the air out of my lungs."

Ray also participated in girls golf at Siloam Springs under coaches Jason McMahan and Brian Matchell.

When her high school career ended, Ray signed with Central Baptist College in Conway, where she played four more years as a center defender.

"I loved it," Ray said of playing college soccer.

Bit by the coaching bug

While attending college at Central Baptist, Ray started volunteer coaching soccer at tiny Conway Christian, a private school in the city.

It was then that Ray fell head over heels for the coaching profession.

"I discovered that I loved coaching," she said. "At times, I liked it even more than playing. I was surprised by that."

Ray's bachelor's degree was psychology and she couldn't teach without a teaching license, so after graduating form CBC in 2011, she went on and got her master's degree at Central Arkansas.

All the while, she continued to volunteer coach at Conway Christian under soccer coach Ancil Lea.

"Ancil Lea helped me a lot," Ray said. "He was the guy who started the program at Conway Christian and taught me how to be a coach. He gave me the girls (team) and let me coach them."

After getting her master's, Ray taught for one year at Conway Christian and made the decision to head back home to Siloam Springs and pursue an employment opportunity in Siloam Springs.

"My mom had put in a prayer request that I needed a job in Northwest Arkansas," Ray said. "Jerri Price saw that and said to put an application in."

In about a four-day period, Ray was interviewing for a job teaching seventh-grade social studies at Siloam Springs Middle School, where she still is to this day.

"It all happened in a four-day period from the moment I put in my application to the moment the school board approved me," Ray said. "Funny thing is when I interviewed it was just for a seventh-grade social studies position. They asked me, do you think you can coach softball? I said I think a coach can coach anything.

"Thankfully it worked out that Kailey Porter wanted out of soccer, and they put me in the sport that I love. It was pretty cool how that all worked out."

Ray joined the staff of her former coach, Bowen, as well as the cross country staff.

"It was a little weird," Ray said. "It was a little scary, because the kids, when I got here, thought (Bowen) was scary. One of the first questions they asked me was did he make you cry when you were here? I said no, he didn't make me cry. I thought that was hilarious."

Ray said Bowen had mellowed out tremendously from when she played for him nearly 10 years earlier.

"He wasn't near as intense as when I played," she said. "So coming into that situation when I knew how intense he was, I was a little fearful, I guess, of how I'm going to work with this guy. He called me when I got hired and was super nice. He did a really good job of flipping that relationship from player/coach to a professional respect. It worked out really well."

Soccer success

In five years as an assistant soccer coach at Siloam Springs, Ray has worked under three different head coaches. But the revolving door at the top of the Panthers and Lady Panthers program has not stopped the teams from having success.

The Siloam Springs boys and girls soccer teams have won a combined seven state championships in that period, along with two state runner-up finishes.

In those five years, the Lady Panthers have gone 87-28-3, while the boys have a record of 75-34-6. Combined that's a mark of 162-62-9.

Ray is the only coach on staff to have been there for all five years, and from the girls team perspective she said it was important to have a constant in the locker room for the players to look up to.

"That can be hard because you have relationships with these girls and you understand the struggle that they're going through," she said. "You have to lead them through that, but you're also supporting your head coach always. As an assistant you have to always have the head coach's back. The girls weren't always content in that situation. To be that constant for them and help them be content in whatever situation we had, that was huge. I think if there's anything I've given to the girls program, I think it's been good for them to have a female that knows soccer, that pours into them, and that's been there for all of it."

In the spring of 2014, under Bowen, Siloam Springs captured its first Class 6A girls state championship with a 3-2 win in penalty kicks over Mountain Home.

With a loaded roster coming back, along with the team's best freshman class ever, expectations were extremely high for the Lady Panthers in 2015 as well, but the team had adversity hit right before the season started.

Bowen was placed on an administrative leave of absence and eventually resigned, and former assistant coach Chuck Jones took over as head coach of the boys and girls programs.

Both teams -- playing their inaugural season in Panther Stadium -- advanced to the Class 6A state championship game, where the Siloam Springs girls defeated Searcy 1-0 for the state title, while the boys lost to Russellville 2-1.

In 2016, under Brent Crenshaw, both teams returned to the state championship, and this time both teams were successful as the girls won their third straight and the boys won the program's third title.

The Panthers and Lady Panthers both won state titles again in 2017.

In 2018, the Siloam Springs girls won an unprecedented fifth straight girls title, something that no girls team has ever done in Arkansas, while the boys were defeated.

Crenshaw said Ray has been a valuable piece of the coaching staff.

"She does a great job communicating with our teams on a team level and individual level," Crenshaw said. "You don't hear her much during games, but she is great at pulling a girl aside in the locker room at halftime to give her some pointers or confidence."

Running for rings

Ray has also been an important part of the Siloam Springs cross country coaching staff the last five seasons.

"Abby is vital to our cross country program," said head coach Sharon Jones. "She is so determined to do a good job. She really cares about her role in our program and appreciates knowing her job."

Ray's first season on the staff just happens to be the last year a SSHS girls team didn't win the state championship.

The Lady Panthers were state runners-up in 2013, finishing second to Lake Hamilton.

Since then though, in girls cross country, it's been all Siloam Springs as the Lady Panthers took home the 6A state title in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Jones gives Ray a lot of credit for helping in the success of the program, but Ray says her head coach Jones and the runners are the main reason the program is so successful.

"She is amazing," Ray said of Jones. "You know it's easy for me to point out how I've had a direct impact in soccer. I could go back every year and tell you this is what I've done every year in soccer to help us get there. With cross country it's really different because Sharon does do such a good job. She plans the workouts. She prepares their bodies so they can run 5Ks faster than anybody else in the state. She does all of that. I love working with her."

Ray said her main influence in the cross country program is that of a motivator.

"(The kids) will ask me for a pep talk before they run," she said. "I can't take much credit for any of those rings. The kids, they'll run through walls. They put their bodies through such hard things. How many other sports do you see the game end with kids throwing up? In cross country you push your body to that limit, and that is amazing to me that the kids are willing to do that."

Ray said often she has to help the runners deal with pre-race jitters.

"They have fear before some of the meets," she said, "because they know how bad it's going to hurt."

Coaching a passion

When Ray began her coaching career, she never imagined it would turn into one of her greatest passions.

"I thought it'd be fine," she said. "I was doing it to make a little extra money or whatever. I loved it. I think a huge part of coaching for me is the motivation and encouragement of those athletes and building that relationship."

She's been in leadership positions before. As a player in high school and college she was a team captain for six of the eight seasons she played.

"As a coach you're automatically there," Ray said. "You're automatically leading. I learned a lot, and I think I've gotten better every year. You know I've coached under a lot of different people and learned from a lot of people. I've learned things to do and things not to do."

There have been some highlights along the way, too, that weren't necessarily in the championship game.

There was the 2015 state girls soccer semifinals against Mountain Home.

Siloam Springs trailed 2-0 late in the match before the Lady Panthers exploded to score five goals in the last 15 minutes and win 5-2.

"That was the most exciting game I've ever been a part of," Ray said. "I think that tops all of our state championships. That game -- we had girls crying on the sidelines. I talk about it. I was talking to my girls about it, and Brooklyn Buckminster reaches out and touches my arm. I gave myself chills just talking about that game."

Ray said now she'll refer to the Lady Panthers' rally against Russellville this past season in the state quarterfinals on the Lady Cyclones' home field. Siloam Springs trailed 1-0 in the second half before scoring two goals to advance to the state semifinals.

"I told the girls in Russellville, this is the game I want to start talking about and they did it," she said. "It was awesome."

The next day, before Siloam Springs played Searcy in the semifinals, Ray had another message for her players.

"I told them as a player I never got to the finals," she said. "For me one of the most exciting things about getting to the finals is you get another week of soccer. If you lose in the semifinals your season is over, and that's devastating to me because I love being with these girls. That was my pregame talk to them this year. I do not want this to be over. I do not want our seniors to leave. We need one more week of this. That was my pitch to get to the finals."

At the end of the day, Ray said, it really isn't about the rings. It's about the experience.

"It was about one more week together," she said. "What I told them was these rings, they're so awesome. They're so fun to win and they're fun to show off. But they sit in my closet in the boxes collecting dust. What matters more than the rings is the experience. the experience of high school soccer, high school cross country, being a part of that family. I remember the last time I played in a college game and putting my jersey on, thinking this will be the last time I am ever part of something, part of a close group. I see that in our athletes. They're a part of something. They're part of a group."

Ray hopes to be the leader of that group someday -- as a head coach.

"I want to be a head coach," she said. "I want it so bad. I've reached this point too, I've never won one of these as a player. I've gotten 11 as an assistant coach. I don't even care about winning one as a head coach. I'm ready to have that responsibility. I'm ready to have that different role."

Sports on 06/27/2018

Print Headline: Abby Ray's rings

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