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Battle-tested Benton (Arkansas) softball coach Heidi Cox builds program into national power

The Lady Panthers own a 64-game winning streak heading into this season
Benton vs Greenwood - 5A State Softball Championship JIMMY JONES / JONES SPORTS MEDIA

Benton (Ark.) High School softball coach Heidi Cox has guided her team to the past two Class 5A state championships and a 64-game winning streak. 

By Kyle Sutherland | Feature photo by Jimmy Jones 

BENTON (Ark.) – The only force that could stop the Benton High School softball team’s 64-game winning streak was a worldwide pandemic. And all it really did was pause it. 

Benton defeated Greenbrier 11-9 on March 10, 2020 and was scheduled to play North Little Rock two days later. That game, along with the rest of the season, was cancelled.

“I remember the locker room conversations being, ‘Hey we are going to have to shut down for a bit.’ but we really thought in our minds it would be maybe two weeks since it was around spring break,” Benton head coach Heidi Cox recalls. “Once it started, it was a slow progression and then we never came back.” 

With all athletics canceled and schools opting to go virtual for the remainder of the year due to COVID-19, athletes were now only given the option of individual or group workouts on their own time as society adjusted daily to a new normal.

Fast forward to August, school is back in session in the Class 5A high school located just outside of Little Rock, and students are masked, six feet apart, along with the multitude of other strict COVID protocols.

Cox and her team are preparing for the 2021 season while trying to keep the team healthy, both from injury and sickness.

“There were so many stipulations, if you did get it you had to get quarantined even if you had been around someone,” Cox said. “That was all new for everyone, but a lot of it taught us adversity which is huge.”

Despite battling COVID-19, Cox knew she had something special brewing on the field with the 2021 group during offseason drills and she was proven right once they got into the meat of their schedule.

“We were very competitive and always try to amp up our schedule,” Cox said. “When we were pushing through pretty big games with the 6A classifications we were like, ‘Alright, let’s just keep this going.’”

Benton High School softball coach Heidi Cox was the first All-American at NCAA Division II program Arkansas-Monticello in 2002. (Photo by Tommy Land)

Benton High School softball coach Heidi Cox was the first All-American at NCAA Division II program Arkansas-Monticello in 2002. (Photo by Tommy Land)

Just like every team experienced, there were some game postponements and cancellations in 2021, but the Lady Panthers never lost focus. They dominated the competition overall with 16 shutout victories and were the heavy favorite heading into the postseason.

“Once we hit the state tournament, we knew we could not lose now,” Cox said. “My coaches and I took a step back and really knew we could win this thing.”

The Lady Panthers did not miss a beat in their four state tournament games defeating Searcy, White Hall, and Greene County Tech by a combined 18-1 before finishing the job against Greenwood 8-1 to finish 31-0. They hoisted the trophy at their own Everett Field - the site of the state championships - and Cox got the ice bath.

“The girls just came out on fire,” Cox said. “Everybody was able to celebrate each other and that is what’s fun. They were genuinely rooting for each other and that was a big time. They accepted their roles and made sure they were doing what they needed to so everyone else could be better.”

Drawing strength from overcoming adversity

The trials Cox and Benton faced from the time of the 2020 season shutdown and adapting to COVID protocols were minimal compared to those she has experienced dating back to when she was a young adult.

Cox - who was Heidi Martin at the time - was a standout softball player at Arkansas High in Texarkana and later played for the late Arkansas Sports Hall of Famer Alvy Early at Arkansas-Monticello following a stint in junior college. Early is the most successful coach in all of Arkansas collegiate athletics with a combined 1,178 combined victories between softball and women’s basketball.

It is a strong debate that Cox is the greatest Cotton Blossom player in school history, but there is zero argument she was the program’s first elite player.

Cox was the school’s first softball All-American in 2002 and still ranks second and third for the highest batting average in a single season - .457 in 2002, .445 in 2001 - along with a share of the fifth-most in both stolen bases in a season (17 in 2002) and a share for fifth place in a single season with a .490 on-base percentage in 2002. Cox was inducted into the UAM Hall of Fame in 2008.

However, her on-field success became far less important just days before the start of her senior year in college.

She returned to Monticello from Texarkana and moved into her dormitory on a Sunday and received tragic news that her father had been killed in a car accident the following day.

Early, who was a major father figure in Cox’s life, gathered her teammates for a meeting and told her.

The impact Early - who raised three boys who are all coaches now - had on Cox was another example of how he not only made athletes better athletically but treated his players as his own children.

“I remember taking the visit, having phone calls with him, he was always checking in on us,” Cox said. “He made you feel wanted and that was what sealed the deal. You always wanted to play for him and never disappoint him.”

Adversity followed Cox after she was married. Her husband, Jason, has suffered from arthritis that was initially diagnosed as rheumatoid at age 18 that developed into psoriatic. At one point, it confined him to a wheelchair, but through multiple surgeries and medical progressions he now has the ability to walk and is able to attend Cox’s games as well as partake in activities with their three boys.

“He is a trooper, let me tell you he runs the ship at our house,” Cox said. “It has been an awesome story for him, and it has definitely made me a much better wife. It will test you on how selfish you can be, but just the drive that he has to be able to get up and fight every day.”

Boosting a championship program to new heights 

Before becoming head coach at Benton prior to the 2012 season, Cox spent time at both Arkansas High and Texas high in her home of Texarkana. Coincidentally, Benton’s first softball state championship in 2004 came after defeating Cox, who was an assistant, and Arkansas High in the state semifinals. Benton defeated North Little Rock in the finals and won the state championship again in 2005.

The Lady Panthers’ third state championship came nine years later with Cox at the helm in her third season with the program.

Chris Murphree joined the staff the year after Cox arrived at Benton and has been along ever since as along with a second assistant - Brittany Dorsey. Murphree typically calls pitches on defense and coaches first base when Benton bats, while Cox coaches third base.

Though the final decisions for the team go through her, Cox allows her staff to have a voice on how things are run which has helped build an even stronger culture.

“I have never had to be an assistant coach under anyone else but being with her for so long I do not feel like an assistant,” Murphree said. “She asks for my opinion on everything, I do not know that there is anything she does not run by me. I just could not ask for a better head coach.”

Longtime Benton assistant softball coach Chris Murphree said head coach Heidi Cox picks his brain often, making him feel like an equal. (Photo by Tommy Land)

Longtime Benton assistant softball coach Chris Murphree said head coach Heidi Cox picks his brain often, making him feel like an equal. (Photo by Tommy Land)

2022 marked the second time in her career Cox led a team that came into a season as the hunted instead of the hunter. The word “pressure” is one Cox has eliminated from their locker room and feels that the team understood that to achieve their goal again it would not have to be via an unblemished record. 

“I think they were all prepared that if we took a punch in the mouth we would just have to bounce back,” Cox said. “There was some internal stuff we had to take care of that most teams do, and I think they handled that well.”

There were some closer contests, but the Lady Panthers pitched 15 regular season shutouts (6 in a row during April) and were 28-0 heading into the 5A state tournament.

“At some of those close points they started to see everything carrying over from practice, and if they remained calm everything would work out,” Cox said. “They bought in.”

Three straight shutouts propelled them back to the state tournament, but Mountain Home (won 3-0) and White Hall (won 4-0) gave them a push in the first two rounds before they rolled against Van Buren 10-0 in the semifinals.

“Once we got to Van Buren the mindset was ‘Let’s go,’” Cox said.

The final game of the 2022 Weekend of Champions occurred on a Saturday as Benton was playing for a second straight 5A state championship on their home field with the Greene County Tech Eagles in their way, a squad the Lady Panthers had defeated 3-0 five weeks prior and also eliminated in the 2021 state semifinals.

With severe weather moving in from the southwest, the game got underway, and Greene County Tech proved they were not intimidated taking a 2-0 lead in the top of the third inning.

Junior Alyssa Houston relieved senior Elana Scott to pitch in the top of the fourth inning and hit her first batter, but struck out three-straight to end the inning as the heavy storms began to creep closer to Everett Field.

Benton punched back to score a run in the bottom of the fourth inning, but Houston got into a jam quickly in the fifth after walking GCT’s first batter, then hitting the next. Houston got some confidence back by striking out the following batter, but a lightning strike within the area immediately after that resulted in a 17-hour weather delay. This pushed the remaining 2 2/3 innings to Sunday afternoon and Houston returned to pitch with runners on first and second base with one out.

Rejuvenated and primed for a repeat 

Before the heavy rain fell, Houston came up to the bleachers where her family and pitching coach were sitting. When she first walked up, she was feeling tight and a little down on herself. By the time she walked away, the now-reigning Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year, SBLive Arkansas Player of the Year, and Stanford signee was confident and had a fire in her eyes - the kind of fire that fueled her ability to compile a 0.49 earned run average during the 2022 season.

Cox knew the next day before play resumed that the delay was somewhat of a blessing in disguise and her girls were ready to go.

“I went up to the office prior to the game starting back and Alyssa was walking with a few of her other teammates,” Cox said. “When they came in laughing and giggling, I stepped outside my office and saw them walking towards the dugout and was like ‘They’re okay.’”

Benton vs Greenwood - 5A State Softball Championship JIMMY JONES / JONES SPORTS MEDIA

Benton finished the 2022 season No. 3 in one national ranking. (Photo by Jimmy Jones)

Getting the boost of confidence from her family and pitching coach the night prior, along with her teammates just moments before the game got underway, was exactly the extra boost Houston needed before she got back in the circle.

“They told me that they felt it coming that I was just going to light them up,” Houston said. “I was just like, ‘Oh guys, I don’t know’, and then we cracked some jokes and it was good because I had been so tense at that moment.”

There was also a feeling of superstition that they playrf much better wearing their white uniforms - which the Lady Panthers wore during their undefeated 2021 state title run - after donning another color the night before.

“We had never worn gray before,” Houston said. “We did not really like the maroon pants, but when we put on the white that Sunday I was like, ‘I don’t know why we have not been wearing this, but we are fixing to ball out!’”

The Lady Panthers put two runs on the board in the top of the fifth inning to take a 3-2 lead and never relinquished it.

Houston struck out seven batters on the day, finishing the game with 10 total against 17 batters faced and allowed zero hits in four innings. She was named the Most Valuable Player and the Lady Panthers completed the undefeated back-to-back run winning their 64th-consecutive game dating back to the 2020 canceled season.

“It is a memory we will have forever.” Cox said.

Alyssa Houston (center) pictured with Arkansas Activities Association administrator Steve Roberts (left) and Benton head softball coach Heidi Cox (right) is one of the most decorated senior softball players in the state and is headed to play collegiately at Stanford University. (Photo by Ted McClenning)

Alyssa Houston (center) pictured with Arkansas Activities Association administrator Steve Roberts (left) and Benton head softball coach Heidi Cox (right) is one of the most decorated senior softball players in the state and is headed to play collegiately at Stanford University. (Photo by Ted McClenning)

Benton, who was 32-0 last season, did not only make waves on a statewide level, but on the national scene as well, finishing the 2022 season at No. 3 in the USA Today/NFCA national high school softball rankings.

Murphree mentioned that the streak and back-to-back championships often come up in conversation, but despite almost a year to think about it he is still left almost speechless.

“I am not sure that it will really soak in,” Murphree said. “When someone new hears about it they are like, ‘Are you serious?’ It is really unbelievable because in our game you do not go undefeated. I do not know that I will fully appreciate it until I am an old man looking back on my career.

“I still go back to look at the numbers and look at the kids we had, we have really been blessed with a whole lot of talent. To go along with that talent, just a lot of good people - unselfish, good kids.”

Now. just days away from a new season beginning with the goal of three-peating, Cox has continued to praise the determination, but also chemistry, that has been ingrained in her team’s culture.

“Just to see them become better individuals each day and love each other more has been rewarding,” Cox said. “When you enjoy the people you are around you really want to perform for them.”

While Cox has shifted her attention to the present year that will feature another challenging schedule, she gives a great deal of credit to those who have departed the program as well as the current seniors who were freshmen during the 2020 shortened season that helped lay the foundation to the current ongoing history being written.

“I think they have already left their mark and it has a special group,” Cox said. “This whole process has just been great and unreal.”