Carla Crowder – ‘a great role model and competitor’

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Carla Crowder is more interested in talking about her Cabot High basketball team than herself, but both have quite a story to tell.

The Lady Panthers return four starters from last year’s team that reached the quarterfinals of the Class 7A State Tournament. Leading the way is Melissa Wolff, a 6-foot-1 senior who will sign with Arkansas.

“We are real excited,” said Crowder, one of the state’s best-known girls basketball coaches, who is starting her ninth season with the Lady Panthers. “We’ve tried to concentrate on shooting and getting stronger and quicker. I hope we’re able to compete.

“Melissa can play the 1, 2, 3, 4 – whatever we need her for. She’s very lanky and competitive and a great kid. She’s improved 180 degrees. She’s grown and turned into a nice player.”

Wolff will follow Lauren Walker, now a senior at South Alabama, and Kim Sitzmann, who played at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before taking her game overseas, as Cabot’s recent Division I players.

Crowder herself has had a front-row seat to watch the evolution of girls’ sports in Arkansas, and she takes seriously her role as an educator.

She played at Bradford (White County) before the switch from the old three-on-three half-court game to full-court five-on-five in the late 1970s.

“Everything we had, we had to fend for,” she remembered. “Our coaches had to work hard to get anything for us. Now the equity is so much better; the play is so much better; their skills have improved.

“But my favorite thing about coaching is seeing the kids five and 10 years later, to see what they’ve become. The kids I’ve had have been highly intelligent and made good choices, and I hope we’ve had something to do with that.”

From an all-state career at Bradford, where she played on the defensive end of the court, she played four years at Arkansas Tech, where she got her first taste of the five-on-five game. She was the only player at Tech who had played defense in high school. At 5-foot-11, she was a fierce defender.

“In college, I played because I could guard anyone,” she said. “I was a worker.”

At Tech, Crowder played under Jim Yeager, whom she credits for influencing her decision to go into coaching. She had played softball, volleyball and run track in addition to basketball in high school. At Tech, she also played volleyball.

After graduating with a degree in physical education, she took her first job at Atkins, spending six years there and taking the Lady Red Devils to regional and state tournament appearances. While at Atkins, she met and married her husband, Mark.

They made the move to Saline County in 1987; she spent 16 years coaching the Bryant Lady Hornets, winning state championships in 1988, ’89 and ’91 and finishing runner-up three more times. She made the move to Cabot nine years ago when she needed to be closer to ill family members in Bradford.

Under Crowder’s leadership, the Lady Panthers finished as state runner-up that first year.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” she said. “I loved it at Bryant, and I really like it here. I enjoy what I do. I’ve got really good younger coaches doing a good job, and there are a lot of people here who care about girls sports. We’re hoping to have a great year this year.”

At Bryant, she had inherited a team with rich tradition. The Lady Hornets won their first state championship in 1982. Cabot, on the other hand, is still looking for its first.

“We try to outwork other people,” she said. “We don’t have the athletes, but our kids buy into it. Our seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade coaches are the most important coaches because they get the kids to stay out and teach them fundamentals.

“We had a good group my first year and made it to the finals, and we’ve been in the semifinals a couple of years. We’ve really been competitive, and the kids work hard. I enjoy it.”

She’s assisted by Charles Ruple. The junior high feeder teams are coached by Jeremy Halbrook and Lori Harmon.

Steve Roberts, the new athletic director at Cabot this year, has been impressed by Crowder.

“She is an extremely hard worker, very direct in her expectations, and she has a great heart for young people she interacts with,” he said. “She is definitely an asset to our district and our coaching staff.”

Crowder, who earned a master’s degree from Arkansas Tech along the way, teaches physical education and helps with the junior high programs. Mark Crowder is assistant principal at Vilonia. Their son Colton, 19, is a student at the University of Central Arkansas.

“If I didn’t have a good husband, I couldn’t do what I do,” she said. “My family understands we do this full-time, 12 months out of the year, 24-7.”

And part of what she does has nothing to do with a basketball court.

“You want to win, but we’re also teaching kids to be good people and how to function in society,” Crowder said. “Kids today don’t communicate very well. They’re all texters and on the computer, Facebook, so I think athletics really helps that.”

The Lady Panthers participate in several community service activities, including reading at the elementary schools, visiting nursing homes and working with the homeless.

“We do all kinds of different things to let them see what life is about,” Crowder said. “They come here and their parents say they think life is all about them, but when they leave they know it’s not. They know the world doesn’t revolve around them.”

A regular activity is for the team to compete in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, but there was a conflict this fall with the ACT. Schoolwork is another emphasis.

“We help them with tutoring after school,” Crowder said. “School comes first, and they know that. We ask a lot of them, and they’ve got to learn to budget their time.”

She believes that such bonding activities help to unify the team.

Henry Hawkins, the Cabot High principal, has known Crowder since their days at Tech.

“She has always been a great role model and competitor,” he said. “She is very soft-spoken and loves her kids and loves what she does. She is also active in the players’ lives. Her basketball teams take up a cause every year and do things that help people or the community.

“She is very humble and is also a great team member for me and Cabot High School. We are very lucky to have her.”