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Hosting 6A Arkansas high school basketball state tournaments a team effort at North Little Rock

More than 100 volunteers are working the tournament

NORTH LITTLE ROCK — For 12 boys and girls teams in Class 6A, the goal is simple: Advance to the state championship game on March 8 in Hot Springs. 

For the boys and girls basketball programs at North Little Rock, the goal is twofold: Advance to the state championship and make sure everyone who participates at Charging Wildcat Arena this week has a good time.

North Little Rock's arena is 22 years old but still hosts state tournaments. 

North Little Rock's arena is 22 years old but still hosts state tournaments. 

For North Little Rock’s girls, who are 26-4 and ranked fifth in the SBLive Arkansas Power 25 rankings, part of the motivation of putting in a bid to host this year’s state tournament was to give their team a chance to advance to the state championship at home. In addition, the boys are 19-7 and ranked sixth in SB Live’s latest rankings.

North Little Rock athletic director Wes Bilon said motivation to host the state tournament started back in November when he met with a group of 20 volunteers on a weekly basis. He said he wanted to give his teams a chance to play a state tournament on their home floor.

“There has always been an agreement between the West and Central conference when it comes to hosting the tournament and last year, it was at Rogers, North Little Rock girls head coach Daryl Fimple said. “This time, with the Central’s turn to host, we wanted to do it. We hadn’t done it since 2018 and while we have a gym that is 22-years old, we feel we have a nice place because we take good care of it. We feel it is a special place and we wanted to give our kids a chance to sleep in their beds.”

North Little Rock athletic director Wes Bilion 

North Little Rock athletic director Wes Bilion 

While having the facility is of utmost importance when it comes to hosting the state tournament, the next thing Fimple said is making sure the school has a community and enough volunteers who are willing to work not just the five days the tournament is being held at North Little Rock, but also in the preparation that has gone one since Jan. 11 when the Arkansas Activities Association awarded the state tournament to North Little Rock.

Bilon said he hast at least 100 volunteers serving in a variety of roles - concessions, selling programs, hosting teams, monitoring the floor, parking buses, gate admission, hospitality room, setting up practice times in the auxiliary gym and handling hotel accommodations for out of town teams.

While the out-of-town teams are responsible for making their hotel reservations, North Little Rock had volunteers and members of Chamber of Commerce work with hotels to provide special rates for teams that needed rooms this week.

“We’re fortunate that we have a community that a lot of retired teachers and former coaches who want to work and make sure this is a special week for the kids and to make my job easier so all I have to do this week is coach the kids,” said Fimple.

“This is a project where we have all hands on deck and have an administration that will do everything it can do to make it special for the kids.

While the Arkansas Activities Association collects 100 percent of the gate receipts, the school is responsible for handling all day-to-day responsibilities hosting the tournament.

North Little Rock has solicited local sponsors to help defray expenses in many regards whether it’s putting the hospitality room together, sponsoring games for $250 and other roles. Sponsors are recognized throughout the arena.

While Fimple said every team’s goal that comes into Charging Wildcat Arena is to win and keep the season lasting as long as possible, he wants to make sure that every team has good experience.

Bilon said the North Little Rock tourism department helped supply players with goody bags with snacks when they arrived at the arena. He said coaches were given computer bags with the state tournament logo and officials were given garment bags.

“The trinkets aren’t that big, but they’re done to help make things special,” Fimple said.

Fimple said the nice thing about hosting a state championship in the state’s largest classification is the fact that fans can see future players at the college level. Some of the top players in the state in 6A include Bryant’s Kellen Robinson, Little Rock Central’s Annor Boateng, who has committed to Missouri, and Fayetteville’s Ornette Gaines. Some of the top players on the girls side include Central’s Jordan Marshall, who signed with Louisiana Tech; North Little Rock’s Jocelyn Tate; and Cabot’s Jenna and Jaycie Cook.

Unlike the other classes which have 16 teams in the state tournament and start their games at 1 p.m. each day, the 6A tournament has 12 and starts at 4 p.m. which means some fans don’t have to worry about missing work and some students don’t have to worry about missing school to attend, but in the end, Fimple said attendance is going to be driven by who advances, and in some cases how close the schools are to North Little Rock.

For example, he said on Tuesday, Bentonville had both its boys and girls teams playing, but not a lot of fans because Bentonville is approximately 200 miles away from North Little Rock.

Bilon said attendance was slow on the first day but benefited on the second day with nearby Cabot’s body and girls playing Bentonville West and Rogers and the host North Little Rock playing Fort Smith Northside in the late game.

“We expected the first day to be slow, but it’s going to pick up each day,” said Bilon. “Tonight, we had the last game of the night and sometimes that can be hard.”

While Fimple likes being able to play at home this week, he knows his team has to take care of business on the floor if it wants to advance to Hot Springs. Two years ago, when the state tournament was at Little Rock Southwest, and he liked the fact his team could drive across town and not worry about having to miss time away from the classroom. The Lady Charging Wildcats defeated Fort Smith Northside that year to win the state championship. A year ago, the tournament was in Rogers, he said his team had a good experience advancing to the finals where it lost to Conway.

“It comes down to how well you play,” said Fimple. “Two years ago, when it was at Southwest, that helped because it was so close. There is an advantage to playing at home, but you have to use the advantage to make it work. The big thing is making sure you get the kids prepared.”

In Wednesday’s girls action, Springdale defeated Bryant 52-36 and Cabot’s girls defeated Rogers 56-39. In boys action, Bentonville West defeated Cabot 54-45 and North Little Rock beat Fort Smith Northside 59-58.

--Jeff Halpern | @SBLiveAR