Celebrating Athletic Excellence: Perry County’s Cali Lankford

By Dr. Robert Reising

Every team winning a national championship has earned an exceptional honor, its  impact forever celebrated throughout history. Similarly, every member of that team can claim a contribution, large or small, to the team’s success, a source of pride that embellishes a lifetime.

Photo courtesy of Central Baptist College

Cali Lankford is as proud today as she was on the day she last donned a uniform as a member of the Central Baptist College (CBC) girls softball team, which won the 2018 National Championship of the National Christian College Athletic Association. Recollections of the pressure-filled four-day tournament remain fresh in her mind, as do the myriad of experiences, athletic and otherwise, that brought her to Botetourt County, Va., the site of national championship play almost six years ago.

Born in Conway in June 1997, Lankford is the only child of sports-loving parents. A foreman in a Morrilton paper mill, her father “practiced softball with me every day,” she proudly recalls about her early years. Not to be outdone, her mother, a tax preparation consultant, had her daughter tossing, dribbling, and shooting a basketball in what was left of her free moments. Both parents, she quickly adds, “expected all A’s and B’s in the classroom.”

The practice and persistence produced huge dividends. Accompanying strong academic performances at Perryville High were no less impressive ones in school athletics. A two-sport performer, she fared nicely on the basketball court but was one of the state’s best in the sport she had come to love most: softball. While in the former, she gained All-District honors three times and an All-State selection as a senior, in softball, she was twice an All-State honoree after again thrice garnering All-District accolades.

More than a few institutions of higher education desired her combination of talents, but prevailing was CBC, led by its zealous Head Girls Softball Coach, Crystal Robinson. A shade below six feet tall, Lankford brought to Robinson’s program not only a senior-season .519 batting average, complete with eight home runs, but also, as a pitcher, a 13 and 4 win-loss record, accompanied by a 1.17 earned run average (ERA).

At the signing, the coach was ecstatic, three times employing the adjective “great” in identifying Lankford as a student, an athlete and a person. Precious few newcomers to higher education, the CBC mentor realized, offer stronger credentials than the soon-to-be eighteen-year-old’s. Nor did Lankford disappoint. She performed creditably in her lone season of CBC basketball, registering 42 rebounds and 31 points in 12 games as a reserve forward, with softball refusing to wane among sports she preferred. Four years of irreplaceable stardom on the diamond followed.

Except for a few games as an outfielder, she commanded a distinctive role in the Mustangs’ success: she was the team’s designated hitter, batting in place of all pitchers in every game; additionally, she was a key pitcher, particularly in relief assignments. Her place in CBC’s line-up in every inning of play was thus virtually certain. Clearly, she was a team stalwart. Her yeoman-like service included a 3 and 3 win-loss record in 48 innings as a hurler and, in 2016, a multi-inning contribution to a combined no-hitter. It also saw her appear in 141 games and record 96 hits for a .276 career batting average, accompanied by 17 bases on balls, 15 doubles, 13 home runs, and 70 runs batted in (RBIs). Perhaps most impressive of all was her career slugging percentage, a hefty .438.

Despite quality players like Lankford and an impressive 37-win and 19-loss record, CBC entered the 18-team National Tournament only as its fourth seed. Yet the Mustangs refused to be denied. On May 19, 2018, they emerged from the tournament unbeaten, the lone team not to suffer a loss in five games played in four days. Belhaven University from Jacksonville, Miss.—the first seed—toppled 5 to 2, a surprise to countless tournament fans, and certainly to the Belhaven faithful, who had never envisioned an upset of their beloved Blazers.

Lankford did not fare well in Botetourt. In 16 plate appearances, she stroked but two hits, one a home run. Yet she was hardly unhappy. Like every other member of the CBC team, she had claimed a prize larger and more precious than individual glory. 

She recognized that teams, not individuals, win championships and that she had been blessed to claim membership on one of those teams, to be remembered and respected as long as recorded history. Lankford went on to earn not only her baccalaureate with honors from CBC but also her Master’s Degree in Health, Physical Education, and Coaching from the University of Arkansas at Monticello, with a 3.7 grade point average.

Currently, she teaches STEM courses at Gentry (Benton County) Middle School and coaches volleyball at neighboring Gentry High School. Away from the classroom, Lankford converses freely and proudly about the teams on which she played at Perryville High and CBC, consistently expressing gratitude to the former for preparing her well for the championship play she encountered at the latter. That play will never be forgotten in or by Perry County.

Bob Reising