BENTON – After losing half its team and majority of its contributors to graduation a season after making it to the 6A state semifinals, the Benton Panthers mirrored last season with another semifinals trip, only to lose to the 2014 6A State Champion Jonesboro Hurricane (Jonesboro lost 34-33 to Bobby Portis' Hall team in finals last season) for the second consecutive season. But after being picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the 7A/6A South Conference this past season, the Panthers exceeded all expectations to win the conference with a 12-2 record.
For the Panthers' accomplishments and after losing so much from the season before, interim Coach Dwaine Fishburn was named the Outstanding 7A/6A South Conference Coach of the Year, and is also a 6A South All Star Coach nominee, which is being voted on now. Fishburn said the South coaches explained their decision.
"They said, ‘Coach Fish, you had five of the most outstanding players that Benton has ever had and you lost all of them,'" Fishburn said. "Josh [Bowling] (All State), a returning starter, came back. We knew during the conference year that you were going to have to develop your younger players. They’re outstanding sophomores, but they haven’t really played against this type of competition."
Fishburn, with Assistant Interim Coach David Torres, merged the inexperienced players with veteran seniors Josh Bowling and Blake Bowlin (All State), and recieved big minutes from senior guards Tarek Beaugard and Luke Vincent. Sophomore guards Cason Maertens, also an all-state selection, and Clay Anderson, along with spot duty action from junior guards Ketiran Jones and Nathan Humble, the Panthers overcame depth issues all season to repeat their semifinal performance.
"We had a good base of players and [Fishburn]was able to incorporate the younger players with the experienced players he had," Benton Athletic Director Steve Quinn started, "and he and Coach Torres stepped in and were able to keep the continuity of the program and our kids responded well. They did a good job and were able to be successful. They did an outstanding job for us this year."
For Fishburn, it was about his players buying into the defensive system and the family atmosphere which showed when the Panthers finished second out of 112 teams during a summer tournament in Texas.
"We’ve had a defensive system here for 12 years," Fishburn said. "For the most part, a very hard-nosed defensive system that’s been here for a long time. Our offensive philosophy, (former Head Coach Chris Nail) did a great job of establishing that philosophy when he came here six years ago. But none of that matters unless you get kids that are going to do or are able to do it.
"All the individual awards are due in large part of how the family members, that’s what we call each other, how they do their individual jobs. Our success, as coaches and players, is due to how well we put it together as a family to help each other."
Along with finishing 23-7 (second-best Benton record all-time to last year's 27-3, 14-0 South team), the Panthers won tournaments in Cabot, Russellville and Mountain Home to add to their resume.
"I’ve been very blessed with great kids," Fishburn said. "The conference coaches were very complimentary. With our experience level, it was a very good surprise, and it’s also a credit to our young kids, the sophomores and the juniors that have never played before in senior high until this year, how well they caught on to things and how well they played their role.
"One of the things I’m most proud of is how we grew together and I’m thankful the conference coaches commented on that, on how our kids just kept getting better and better and they were very impressed with that and our kids. That’s a combination of our kids, our varsity, JV, managers, no doubt Coach Torres played a big part, too. It’s not all the head coach. Coach Torres played a big part in our program this year. He deserves a lot of credit for our success."
But in the end, it was about family and putting it all together.
"It’s a puzzle you try to put together every year," Fishburn said. "You have to find the best pieces and put them together and everybody just played a great role this year. It’s so fun and so rewarding when you have a great assistant coach and you have wonderful kids willing to listen and learn. "It’s just been a very blessed year."