Heber Springs senior Katelyn Vanlandingham quickly made the decision of her distinction to play college volleyball.
Vanlandingham, a four-year starter, signed a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics letter-of-intent with Lyon College Friday (February 28).
She played an important role in leading the Lady Panthers to the 2018 state tournament and within one win of returning in 2019.
“My brother, Tyler, just graduated from Lyon and played football,” said Vanlandingham, when asked about her choice of school. “I received a few other offers, but Lyon was my choice. I love the school.”
Vanlandingham moved from Memphis to Heber Springs before the start of her freshman season. She played volleyball while living in Memphis, and Heber Springs coach Andrea Riggs said that experience showed on the court during the past four years.
“She was a huge contributor to the program,” Riggs said. “She had more experience in the beginning than other players and it showed. She had good skills and could pass, serve and hit the ball well.”
Vanlandingham said she didn’t know what to expect after leaving Memphis, but it worked well.
“It was a big transition,” she said. “I had a good four years and proud of what I did.”
Vanlandingham said it’s difficult to select one special memory while playing for the Lady Panthers, but she will remember all four seasons.
“Every game was a memory,” she said.
Riggs said Vanlandingham is showing the younger players that hard work can pay off and help in receiving an opportunity to play in college.
“The current high school players and the younger players coming up will benefit from Katelyn’s signing,” Riggs said. “It may help in getting girls playing other sports to consider volleyball. It will help in continuing the program’s success. We want to keep it going in that direction.”
Vanlandingham said one of her goals next season is contribute to her new team’s success.
“I hope to play as a freshman,” she said. “I’m focusing on all areas. There is always room for improvement.”
LYON COLLEGE BOUND
With Vanlandingham signing with Lyon College, she becomes the sixth Heber Springs athlete to sign with the Batesville school in the past two years.
CLASS OF 2020
CHEER AND DANCE - Gentry Hamilton
VOLLEYBALL - Katelyn Vanlandingham
WOMEN'S BASKETBALL - Libby Stutts
WOMEN'S SOCCER - Taylor Hammons
CLASS OF 2019
BASEBALL - Nick Chaney
FOOTBALL - Blaze Nelson
Three Heber Springs players were named to the Class 4A-Central Conference all-conference volleyball team.
Seniors McKenzie Becerra and Katelyn Vanlandingham were selected to the first team. Becerra was also an nominee for the state all-star game. Zoe Monroe was an honorable mention selection.
Heber Springs (7-7 in conference, 10-15 overall) tied for fourth place with Lonoke, which qualified for the state tournament on a tiebreaker.
The Lady Panthers, who completed their eighth year of competition, attempted to earn back-to-back state tournament berths. Heber Springs qualified for the state tournament in 2018 for the first time in the program’s history.
“We came close to go back to the state tournament,” coach Andrea Riggs said. “We progressed throughout the year, but we were capable of doing better. The players played well when considering their level of overall experience compared to other teams. I wish we could have gotten back to state, but we will try and do that next year.”
Riggs said next season will be different with the graduation of six senior starters and searching for a new starting lineup.
“We served well for most of the season,” said Riggs when asked about areas of improvement. “The players developed more mental toughness. We will look to this year’s JV players and maybe some help from the junior high team. Offseason work will be very important in building next year’s team.”
Heber Springs had a junior high program for the first time in the program’s history, and Riggs said that will benefit future players.
“We had played ninth graders in the past, and they are important for the next year’s team,” she said. “Adding the upcoming eighth graders will help. The junior high school program will close the gap of players’ experience from other teams’ players. I’m looking forward in seeing what the younger players will do next season.”
After dropping a five-set match to conference foe Joe T. Robinson on Tuesday at the Panther Den, Heber Springs rebounded on Thursday with a three-match sweep of Dover on the road.
Heber Springs, 4-5 overall, improved to 3-2 in the 4A-Central with the 25-14, 25-17, 25-21 win at Dover.
On Tuesday, Heber Springs won the first match, 25-23, but dropped the next 21-25 and 13-25. The Panthers rebounded in the fourth match with a 25-12 win to force the deciding match in which the Panthers lost 9-15.
Heber Springs hosts Rose Bud Monday at the Panther Den in nonconference action before traveling to Lonoke on Tuesday for a 4A-Central match.
Panthers are coming off a program first state tournament appearance
By Philip Seaton
HEBER SPRINGS – Last season was a year of firsts for the young Heber Springs volleyball program.
The Panthers had their first winning season in the program’s history which also resulted with their first state tournament berth.
Heber Springs will look to repeat on that 2018 performance when they open play today with a nonconference match with Little Rock Hall at the Panther Den beginning at 4:30 p.m.
Despite a three-set loss to the host Mena in the 4A state tournament in 2018, coach Andrea Riggs’ squad finished with a 13-8 overall record and a fourth-place finish in the 4A-Central conference in the seventh season of the sport at the Heber Springs.
“They have already said that (reaching the state tournament) has helped them and they know what to expect,” Riggs said. “That level of play helps any team.
“We lost two big front row players (from last year), and replacing with two inexperienced players, that’s tough but we are going to try some things.”
One of the things that will be tried this year for the program is another first — a junior high team.
“We had been starting in the ninth grade,” Riggs said. “We’ve been behind the curve, some teams we play actually start volleyball in the fourth grade.”
She added that will help in building the program over the long term.
“We are always rebuilding, there hasn’t been a year where we haven’t been in this situation,” Riggs said. “Until we get something established where we have a good competitive group of junior high kids that we can move up, and maybe have some 10th-graders getting some varsity play, like you see with a traditional basketball program, then those things will help us long term.”
Though the junior high team will not compete in a conference this season because of the lateness of declaring the program, Riggs said that junior high team has potential.
“It will hands down be the best we’ve had at that age,” she said.
While the future of the program looks bright, Heber Springs returns four players from last season that saw significant varsity action.
Seniors McKenzie Becerra, Katelyn Vanlandingham and Zoe Monroe, and junior Ellie Skelton.
“Ellie is a setter, and she pretty much runs the court,” Riggs said. “McKenzie is the libero and she is pretty much our best defensive player. Katelyn is a super strong hitter, sees the court well and has great volleyball knowledge, while Zoey is a good all-around player that is going to work hard.”
Riggs credited all four varsity returners with being good servers and said overall that serving will be one of the strengths of the team.
“We will be shallow on our hitting,” she said. “Hopefully that will progress as the year goes.”
Several seniors will be moving up from the junior varsity squad and are expected to see significant playing time this season.
“Cheyenne Kent does a good job blocking the ball which is nice, and we’ll be looking for her hitting game to improve,” Riggs said. “Mayra Leal and Abi Finkbeiner are (also) both moving up from junior varsity.”
She said that is typical for her team with seniors seeing their first significant varsity experience their senior season.
“That’s when most are ready to play,” Riggs said.
A couple of underclassmen may be the exception to that rule as Riggs said that sophomore Kiley Wilson may see some varsity action, “if I have to pull another hitter, might have to go to her.” Junior Felicia Wildmon may also see varsity of action according to Riggs.
The Panthers will most likely go with a nine-player rotation.
“That is more than in years past,” Riggs said. “We are having to play on different strengths, having to move some things around and shift some things.
“There some things we haven’t necessarily run in the past that we are running this year to try to play on the different strengths we do have.”
Morrillton, which was undefeated in conference play last season, and Pulaski Academy, a 4A state semifinalist team in 2018, are expected to be the teams to beat in 4A-Central play according to Riggs. Other teams in the blended 5A-4A conference are Lonoke (a state tournament team last year), Joe T. Robinson, Clarksville, Dover and Forrest City.
When asked what it will take for Heber Springs to make it back to the state tournament, Riggs said, “work hard on every single play.”
She continued, “Are they playing the ball smart? They are going to have to think and be smart. We are not going to have the tallest girls on the court, so we are going to have to outwork them. If they go out and work, we’ll do fine. If they don’t, we’ll get beat.”