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Conway (Arkansas) believes hire of football coach Buck James can lift Wampus Cats to greater heights

Ex-Bryant coach leaves behind impressive streak in switch to 7A-Central rival

By Buck Ringgold 

Photo of Buck James by Jimmy Jones 

While looking for his new head football coach, Conway athletic director Clint Ashcraft wanted someone to help take the Wampus Cats to even greater heights. 

Judging from the track record and success of the man Ashcraft did end up landing, those lofty goals may very well be realized. 

On Tuesday, in one of the more seismic coaching shifts in the history of Arkansas high school football, Buck James ended his dynastic tenure at Bryant to take over at 7A-Central conference rival Conway, attempting to do with the Wampus Cats what he did with the Hornets.

“We’ve been right there on the cusp, we’ve been close, and just taking those little things that he does, those little nuances that all head coaches bring, all the things that he brings in has led to success everywhere,” Ashcraft said. “So taking what he does mixed with who we’ve got and what we’re already doing, we’re hoping (it) leads to big things.”

Conway is seeking to win its first outright conference title since 2014 and its first state crown since 1964. The Wampus Cats’ previous coach, Keith Fimple - who left to become the athletic director at Springdale Public Schools - won 44 games in five seasons and guided them to semifinal appearances each of the past three seasons.

But generally standing in the way of the Wampus Cats winning conference or even getting the chance to go to Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium to play for a title was James’ Hornets.

Bryant has won each of the last five 7A championships and currently have won 53 straight games against in-state foes. The Hornets beat the Wampus Cats twice - the latter a 42-21 decision in the 7A semifinals.

On Tuesday afternoon, though, the Wampus Cat players had a different view of James, who had his first team meeting with his new squad. Ashcraft remarked there really was no feelings of resentment from the players now being guided by the coach who ended their postseason dreams last November.

“No, I didn’t feel there was any (resentment),” Ashcraft said. “Our kids are all smiles, he knows several of them, he knows who they are, he’s watched them play and was able to speak to some of them directly about looking forward to working with some of them that he knows already and those that he don’t, he’s excited to meet those guys and seeing who the next players that will be stepping up for us are, so I would just say overall, it was very positive.

“I just think, one, they’re excited and two, they’re relieved. They now know who it is, they’ve met him, we had a good first team meeting and everybody’s excited to get to work.”

Familiarity was another advantage Ashcraft had in believing he could land James, who also won a state title coaching at Camden Fairview.

“Coach James and I both are from Pine Bluff, we’ve known each other a long time, coached against each other at three different stops, and so he’s just somebody that I visit with,” Ashcraft said. “We had started talking a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about the job. … When you’re doing something like this, you just reach out to those guys that have had success and there was some interest expressed on both sides.

“We agreed to kind of think about it and talk again later and then the search took a life of its own and kind of took off and developed a real strong mutual interest both ways, so we were glad to be able to get it done and finished.”

The hire of James continues what has already been a memorable year for Conway athletics.

In March, the girls basketball team claimed the 6A state championship. Earlier this month, the boys soccer squad earned back-to-back 6A titles.

And now, the Conway football team will be led this fall by arguably the premier coach in Arkansas.

“We’re just hoping to keep growing (the athletic program) and then to keep spreading the wealth across the board,” Ashcraft said. “When I think about us, we’re pretty good across the board and just looking to develop that, and then to keep that whole thing going across the board.

“(Tuesday) was really just the focus on football and getting this job filled and then starting the process of getting ready for the next football season.”

Ashcraft added he expects James to really focus on his new gig next week, noting the coach is still in the process this week of tying up some loose ends at Bryant.

“This stretch and general sense of excitement across the board, I think after our coaches met with him (at Tuesday’s meeting), I feel like they left that room kind of ready to go,” Ashcraft said. “And then our kids, they were clapping and excited when he finished meeting with them, so right now it’s just a sense of excitement and kind of an eagerness to get started.”

Donovyn Omolo, who will be a senior quarterback for Conway this fall, remarked Tuesday night he is enthused about James taking over the Wampus Cats.

"I think it's a great hire for Conway and our program," Omolo said. "I think if everything goes right, it could really push us over that hump and get us to the next level.

"Numbers don't lie, Coach James has a 53-game in-state winning streak and five straight state championships. He's obviously a great coach; can't wait to get to work this summer and build this team into the fall."

Oh incidentally, for those wondering about this season’s renewal of Conway taking on Bryant, the game will be held on Week 10. On the Wampus Cats’ field, so the Hornets will have to wait a while before they welcome back their old coach.

But while the Hornets players themselves took the high road when asked about James’ exit, they are determined to prove that they can continue their title run, regardless of who roams the sidelines.

“We are happy for him and things are going to go on and we are going to keep the legacy (alive),” said Bryson Adomah, who will be a senior defensive back this upcoming season. “(We want to) prove everybody wrong.”