BENTON -- Over the past few years, the Benton Lady Panthers have become accustomed to big things on and off the diamond. With three 6A state runner-up finishes in the last four seasons, Benton has thrived on the field. But when the offseason hits, the thriving continues.
Recently graduated star infielder Korie Parker furthered her career last November, signing to play at the next level as a Cotton Blossom at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Bryant’s McKenzie Rice followed her and now Benton has two more that will be on the team next fall. On Wednesday night Ashton Currey and Stevi Berg signed the dotted line to become a part of the UAM family.
“Both of these girls are very talented and I am very proud of them,” Benton Head Coach and former Blossom Heidi Cox said. “They are going to be able to fit in [right away]. A lot of people can’t handle not being the top dog. You might have been the top dog in high school, but in college there are a lot of top dogs. [Ashton and Stevi] have worked hard and that is going to continue and make them stronger through their college career.”
The relationship between the future college teammates goes back way further than high school softball. As third-graders in the Benton School District, Currey and Berg became best friends and have been since.
Years later the two became a part of Vertigo, a summer softball team that they have been teammates on up until last year. Now the high school seniors are trading their maroon and gray for the same color green they wore every summer with Vertigo.
“I am really excited to play with Kenzie and Korie and it will be a lot of fun,” Berg said.
“I think I can play a lot better around people I know,” Currey added.
Currey, a converted third baseman, played catcher her whole softball career until she got to the high school level. Now, the hot-corner standout is one of the top defenders, if not the top, for the Lady Panthers.
But the road could have been a lot different had tragedy not struck just 12 months ago. With the death of defensive star Drew Melton last November, Cox was left with a hole to fill at shortstop. Parker, a three-year starter at third base, quickly moved over and filled the void, clearing the way for Currey to step on to the field.
“It is a game-by-game, day-by-day, practice-by-practice situation,” Cox said. “[Currey] was going to compete at third. She could have hit DH. The kid was going to find her way into the lineup. We had to have her.”
Currey owned the second best overall batting average a season ago and hit .500 in 7A/6A conference play.
“Both of these girls are great players,” Cox said.
Berg started playing ball at the age of 10 and according to her, she was not very good. But thanks to Vertigo coach and dad Danny Muilenburg, she became the outfield/pitcher that she is today.
“I couldn’t throw or hit at all when I started,” Berg said with a laugh.
“We made promises to each other when I started. He would teach me to play softball if I taught him how to talk southern,” Currey said laughing while trying to hold back tears. “He held up his end of the deal. He does say y’all, but still talks like a yankee.”
Currey is the daughter of Kimberly Gutman and Michael Currey.
UAM was not the top desired destinations for the two friends.
“We really wanted to play at Alabama,” Currey said. “That wasn’t going to happen,” Berg added with a laugh.
With both Currey and Berg nearly finished with their high school careers, there is still one last season to be played before joining the NCAA. The Lady Panthers will try to get back to the 6A state finals when they begin playing in the spring.
Cox said that Hannah Hurley could sign with Central Baptist College soon and Karrie McCurry is going to visit a couple of places before making a final decision. 2013 graduate and former first baseman Daphne Bono is also considering a transfer to CBC or Ouachita Baptist in the near future, according to Cox.
“To have four players sign out of this class would be huge,” Cox said. “Having just two is big in itself.”