I've been fortunate as a sportswriter to get to travel a lot for work, covering events, games and especially state tournaments.
Over the years, one of the things I look forward to most is the annual state soccer tournament.
When I was hired at the Benton County Daily Record in the spring of 2006, it was understood that one of my duties on staff would be to handle all the soccer coverage for Benton County.
I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in that aspect of it at the time -- I was focusing more on the meat and potatoes of my job, which at the time was covering the Rogers Mounties football team. And, in the job I was leaving at the Jonesboro Sun, I had not been asked to cover any soccer. I was the softball guy.
We moved up to Bentonville in June of that year, and the high school sports season had just wrapped up. So other than covering the high school all-star game that summer -- which was still in Fayetteville at that time -- and some club soccer features (NWA Lightning, Ingram FC, remember those clubs?), that was about the extent of my soccer coverage.
I remember watching a lot of the World Cup that summer as we had just recently bought a high definition television and the high def programming was coming into popularity.
Fast forward a year later to the spring of 2007 and I was immersed in a world that I would come to love as much as a football Friday night -- the world of soccer.
Mainly I was covering Bentonville and Rogers -- one high school each way back when -- but I tried to make it a point to cover every soccer team in Benton County, including Siloam Springs and the upstart Gentry team.
I loved covering soccer and have made some friendships over the years that are still around to this day. Just recently, Bentonville girls coach Kristina Henry announced she was retiring and my mind immediately went back to the spring of 2007 when Bentonville's girls won their first state title with a 1-0 win over Little Rock Central.
State soccer tournament was in Conway that year, and Bentonville's girls were not the favorite to win it all. That designation would have gone to the Rogers girls, who were three-time defending state champions. Bentonville and Rogers played several times that year and the Lady Mounties won every time. They simply had Bentonville's number.
But Rogers was upset by Central in the semifinals, and that paved the way for Bentonville in the finals at Razorback Field.
That 2007 state tournament was a memorable one and I've been at state every year since then.
State soccer has taken me from one corner of the state to another. I've been to Conway, Little Rock, Harrison, Searcy (about three times I think), El Dorado and Russellville (several more times) to name a few.
But the best experience I've ever had at the state soccer tournament was when it was held in Siloam Springs in the spring of 2017. More on that in a minute.
There are a lot of great, great memories from these tournaments, some of which will show up in a future column. It's so neat seeing teams and their fans from across the state converge on a location, set up camp and cheer on their teams.
It's fun to be in a hotel or restaurant and see an entire team come in, getting ready for the state tournament. Just make sure you slip in to eat before the team does!
It's also really cool to stay a while. Most of my state tournament trips have been a three- or four-day affair, depending on the location.
You bring a case of water and keep it in the trunk along with some sun screen and maybe a bottle of Tylenol. Oh, and a folding chair; I've worn mine out and need to buy a new one.
This year is different. The covid-19 pandemic wiped out every single spring sport state tournament, and much to my disappointment, this included the 5A state soccer tournament, which was going to be held at Panther Stadium and at Sager Creek Soccer Park in Siloam Springs.
That tournament -- and all other spring sports state tournaments -- was supposed to begin on Thursday of this week.
I can't help but remember the last time state was here.
The athletics staff did a super job of hosting the tournament in 2017 and I have no doubt they were going to do it again this year. I think back to the 2017 tournament, I'll never forget bringing my son Nathan with me to the final day of it on Saturday. His mom and sister had to be out of town for a dance competition and I had to be at soccer all day, so he came with me. We brought his bean bag, his laptop, and we just sort of made him a little nest at the back of the media room. Every now and then he would come up for air and watch some soccer with me.
Oh yeah, Siloam Springs' girls and boys teams won all their games on their home field en route to state championships, including a thrilling shootout win for the Panthers against Little Rock Hall. I've included a picture of that moment.
I don't know what the 2020 state soccer tournament would have brought. We'll never know.
It's the first time since the spring of 2006 that I haven't been prepping to head to state soccer and it's weird -- really weird.
Speculation is the Arkansas Activities Association will award the same state tournament sites in the spring of 2021 to this year's recipients, which means Siloam Springs would get to host.
I hope it's true.
-- Graham Thomas is the managing editor for the Herald-Leader. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.Sports on 05/10/2020
Print Headline: State soccer memories a treasure