Sitting in her office just a few days before her 25th season as Marion volleyball coach, Lisa Beasley turns reflective.
“This has been such a wild, wonderful journey,” said Beasley. “The program is one thing, but building lasting relationships with our girls and watching them grow up and become successful adults is just so rewarding. I've had an amazing support system and cast. Every administrator and parent have left their impact on me in a very positive way.”
Since 1996, Beasley has crafted one of the elite high school volleyball programs in the state. Marion has earned 10 conference titles and played for the state championship seven times, winning state titles in 2010, 2011, and 2015. Sixty Patriot volleyball players have earned all-conference honors, with 29 players earning all-state nods. Four Marion volleyballers earned all-state honors three seasons. Twenty Marion netters have earned AHSCA All-Star selections.
“It takes a village to do all of that, though,” said Beasley. “We've had the best administration backing us all the way, and so many people who have gone above and beyond to make this successful. Barbara and Debbie Reginelli, Sherri Luttrell, Leslie Brick, Marcia Sutton, Becky and Eric Hart, the late Susan McFalls, Helen Compton, and that's just getting started. Tanya Witt and Lisa Lovely have been around now for years. The parents who continued to go above and beyond, even after their daughter played for me is unreal. The Foglemans, Bramuccis, Parkers, Catts, Sinclairs, Woody, and Diane Wheeless. It's just humbling.”
For Beasley, the journey from rookie coach at a rookie program to state title contender was full of lessons learned.
A Paragould native, Beasley's classmates voted her Most Athletic her senior year. As a junior, she won the Jim Beville Outstanding Female Athlete Award (best all-around athlete who contributes to the success of multiple sports) after starring as a volleyball, basketball, and track athlete in addition to playing softball during the summer.
Beasley earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education at Arkansas State and “knew I wanted to coach, I just wasn't sure where,” said the coach. “I felt comfortable coaching everything except volleyball.”
Beasley observed Coach Donna Clark at Harrisburg and did her student teaching under legendary coach Glenda Patterson at Jonesboro Westside and “that's when I realized I wanted to coach volleyball,” said Beasley.
Marion Superintendent Dan Shepherd offered Beasley the opportunity to launch the volleyball program in the spring of 1996, “which really appealed to me because I didn't have to hear about how 'Coach so-and-so did it this way and coach so-and-so did this,'” said Beasley. “It was nice to not walk in someone else's shadow right off the bat.”
But birthing a program offers many challenges, not the least of which was teaching a new game to students who had not grown up with that sport.
“Volleyball was barely even heard of in Crittenden County,” said Beasley. “I was actually given soccer balls by someone when I asked where our volleyballs were. The first few days on campus were challenging, to say the least.”
Additionally, Marion's league rivals, Harrisburg, Nettleton, and Jonesboro Westside were already established programs, each accustomed to making deep tournament runs.
Marion won the first game in program history at Blytheville in August 1996, but the Patriots finished 9-18 overall and just 2-8 in the conference. The junior high team lost all 12 of its games, eight in league play. Pam Harris was the first Marion Patriot volleyball player to earn all-conference honors following the 1996 season.
“I was worried that the girls wouldn't fall in love with the sport or be interested in it because it was so new and such a challenge,” said Beasley. “But our first group just bought in immediately and really made it a lot of fun.”
Fortunes improved further in 1997 when the Patriots logged a 12-14 record, and their 5-5 league mark was good for third in the conference. Marion logged its first signature victory in program history in the district tournament, at defending state champion Harrisburg. The Patriots lost in the district semifinals to a team they had beaten earlier in the season and missed the state tournament by one game.
“It was devastating. I just cried and cried -- I’m talking ugly crying,” said Beasley. “I didn’t want the girls to see how upset I was, so I walked outside through a door near the locker room and got locked out in the pouring rain.”
Beasley’s team presented her with a scrapbook following the 1997 season at a team dinner, where Beasley’s mother also joined, “which was a really special moment,” said Beasley.
Marion did not reach the state tournament in its first four seasons of varsity play, but the junior high notched consecutive regular-season conference championships in 1997 and 1998, paving the way for the first, great prosperous run of Patriot volleyball.
Y2K AND BEYOND
Most of Beasley's peers in the volleyball coaching circles pointed to the fifth year of a program as a crucial one in the progress of a new program. Entering the 2000 season, expectations ramped up at Marion High.
“One of the ladies who used to be an official and who I played softball with always told me 'this isn't gonna happen overnight, don't get discouraged or down,'” said Beasley. “She knew how competitive I was and of course you want to win. Well, 2000 was the fifth year.”
The Patriots opened the new millennium with myriad firsts for the young program: first winning overall record (21-14), first winning conference mark (6-4), best conference finish (second). In the postseason, Marion recorded its first state tournament appearance, victory, and semifinal appearance.
At Harrison for the state tournament, it felt like Marion against the world.
“Playing Harrison on the road at that time was like playing Arkansas at Barnhill,” said Beasley. “We had a tiny cheering section compared to what Harrison had, but our people sat right behind the bench and were loud as could be.”
Harrison erased late deficits in each set en route to earning the Class AAA title a few days later.
“I think a lot of people thought we'd be one and done that year,” said Beasley. “It was a neat experience and the girls had totally bought in at that point. It was nice that all the hard work had paid off, that we knew we could make a deep run like that. It was just a lot of fun to be part of it.”
Emmalee Garey earned all-state honors in 2000, while Ellie Horton and Blair LaRue joined Garey on the all-conference team.
Marion fashioned a sterling 19-9 record in 2001, capped by its first conference title. The Patriots repeated as league champs in 2002 before advancing to the quarterfinals.
THE ONE(S) THAT GOT AWAY
The Patriots averaged 16 victories per season between 2000 and 2005, but they had yet to play for a state title. That changed in the fall of 2006. Marion tied the program record for victories (21) in 2006, on its way to its third league title. In their first appearance at the competitive Conway tournament in October, Marion beat perennial big-school volleyball power Fort Smith Southside and finished as tournament runner-up.
“As ninth-graders, the seniors that year won the conference, district tournament, and we knew they had the look of a great group,” said Beasley.
Marion was set to break onto the statewide stage at the state tournament. The Patriots rolled to their first state final and appeared poised to claim the crown against league rival Jonesboro, a team that Marion split a pair of meetings within the regular year.
However, Jonesboro outscored Marion in five, thrilling sets to deny the Patriots the elusive first state crown. The deciding set was 15-13.
“People ask me how many championships we've won here,” said Beasley. “I always say three, but it should have been four. Coach (Shayla) Williams always tells me to let it go, but I can't.”
Amanda Hitchman and Megan Tompkins garnered all-state honors for the 2006 Patriots, while Jessica Winfrey, Robyn Croom, and Casey Byrd joined Hitchman and Tompkins on the all-conference team.
The devastating final came on the heels of Beasley's mother dying a few weeks before the state tournament.
“If it hadn't been for volleyball and those girls, I honestly may not be here today,” said Beasley. “The game obviously hurt, but having a commitment and something to distract me was good in the long run.”
The 2007 Patriots nearly returned to the final, and may have if not for the loss of Winfrey, who accepted a basketball scholarship to Murray State, to an ACL injury midseason of that year.
“She was such a beast, she'd tear the leather off the ball,” said Beasley. “I'm sitting home that Sunday night and she texts me telling me she hurt her knee at a showcase. It was so sad because it was her junior year, she'd had a great season to that and it was going to be a great basketball run for them, too.”
Lake Hamilton toppled Marion in five sets in the 2007 semifinals, losing the deciding set 15-13.
MARION FINALLY GARNERS GOLD
Marion's biggest victory in program history may have come in a game it actually lost, a four-set defeat to Benton in the 2009 state final in Jonesboro at the Convocation Center.
The 2009 Patriots established the school record for victories (29), including a sterling 11-1 league mark, good enough to earn their fifth conference championship. Marion streaked to the finals before losing in four sets to Benton.
“It was just a wake-up call because we had a young team,” said Beasley. “The girls were mad because they felt like they could have won it, and should have won it. They were on a mission from the time the Benton game ended until we finally got back, and the mission was to
Jacquia Bell, Marion's first Division 1 player, Sara Wilson, Mallory Burnett, and Karla-Ann Norton earned all-state honors for the 2009 Patriots. Taylor Sinclair, Angel Messer, and Harley Strayhorn were all-conference performers in 2009, with Strayhorn throwing her hat into the ring as a star prognosticator.
“Leaving the dressing room after our first day of off-season, Harley yelled across the gym and told me we were gonna win the state championship,” said Beasley. “I asked her why wouldn't we just win two? So, she says 'OK, we're gonna win the next two.'”
Strayhorn was true to her word. The 2010 Patriots overwhelmed their competition to the tune of a 33-3 overall record, including a 14-0 mark in league play. Marion swept rival Mountain Home in the semifinals before vanquishing Van Buren on October 31 in Bentonville to claim the crown.
Karla-Ann Norton, now an assistant volleyball coach at Marion, earned MVP of the state final with 17 kills. Norton, Strayhorn, Messer, and Taylor Sinclair notched all-state honors, while Jackson and Emily Burns were all-conference selections.
“Those girls were just so dead set on finishing the deal in 2010, it was very impressive to watch,” said Beasley. Their determination and desire were unreal. They didn't always like or look forward to practice, but they were always ready on gameday.”
Marion won its way to the top of the state in its 15th season of varsity volleyball, but a large senior group graduated following the Van Buren final. Strayhorn and Burns would be seniors in 2011, but few other returners remained.
“I'm not sure how many people thought we could get back in 2011. We really struggled at some summer camps, and even early (started 1-2) that year,” said Beasley. “That year could have gone either way until we played at Mountain Home and it all sort of fell into place. We gelled and took off.”
The 2011 Patriots won the Southaven tournament and recorded a second straight 14-0 mark in conference play to earn the top seed in the state tournament. Marion topped Texarkana in four sets in the opening round and swept bitter rival Jonesboro in the semifinals to set up a third meeting with Mountain Home for the state title.
Marion mauled Mountain Home in Conway to repeat as Class 6A state champion behind state final MVP and all-state performer Strayhorn, who backed up her prediction following her sophomore season. Burns and Rayven Stephens also earned all-state honors, while Katie James and Zane Carter earned all-conference nods.
“We've been lucky lately to have had some great teams with high expectations and aspirations,” said Beasley. “That 2011 team was special, just based on the people on the team, but because I think they did surprise people. They were already competitive, to begin with, and they really took it up a notch because it seemed like some people doubted them.”
Marion finished a combined 58-7 and 28-0 in 2010 and 2011. Beasley's Patriots had truly arrived as a state power.
MARION PLAYS A PERFECT GAME
Marion advanced to the semifinals in 2012 and 2013, and the whispers of the next great group of Patriot volleyballers were in full form by the fall of 2013. That season's freshman group finished undefeated for the junior high district champions, and they faced few legitimate challenges.
Eight sophomores were promoted to the 2014 varsity team to join junior Diane Phillips, who earned all-conference honors as a freshman and an all-state nod as a sophomore.
Phillips meshed seamlessly with sophomores Annalee Parker, Ally Bramucci, Sara Betts, Sarah Burford, Gabi Catt, and Hope Phipps as Marion bolted to the top of the 7A/6A East standings by the end of September. The Patriots survived a two-game mid-season losing streak to earn the top seed from the 6A East for the state tournament at Mountain Home.
Marion returned to the final by winning six of seven sets in Baxter County before falling to Russellville in Hot Springs in the final, the Cyclones' second state championship in three seasons.
Phillips and Parker garnered all-state honors for the 2014 Patriots, while Phipps, Bramucci, and Catt landed on the all-conference list.
Perhaps more importantly, the seven players who logged the most minutes in 2014 were projected to return in 2015.
However, 2015 opened with its own difficulties. Marion impressed during its 2-0 start against Brookland and Nettleton, but a knee injury to Phillips threatened the Patriots' ultimate goal.
Marion's bad dream worsened with key road trips to Class 7A power North Little and bitter rival Mountain Home to open league play. With Phillips sidelined, Marion started 0-2 in the league, including a bitter, five-set loss at Mountain Home.
“Obviously, Diane meant so much to our team. With her out, that season could have gone either way,” said Beasley. “But the girls we still had were excellent and once we got over the shock, we settled in.”
Marion righted the ship following the Mountain Home defeat and won eight straight games, while Phillips returned much sooner than anyone expected in late September: just in time for rematches with North Little Rock and Mountain Home.
Back at full strength, and with the raucous Patriot Volleyball Gym backing them, the Patriots avenged their two earlier losses by winning six out of seven sets. Marion would be the top seed in the state tournament at Greenwood once again.
Revenge-minded Marion swept Russellville in the semifinals, setting up a final match with the No. 1 seed from the West: Greenwood.
On Halloween Day, the scariest thing in Hot Springs was the Marion Patriots, who completed a dominant state tournament run by sweeping Greenwood at Bank OZK Arena to win the third state title in six seasons.
“That team was so special because everyone excelled at different things,” said Beasley. “We were full of offensive weapons in every rotation. We had unselfish girls who loved to play the game and only wanted to make everyone else better. We had great defenders. It was just an awesome group of players and people who complemented each other in every way.”
Phillips, who later signed with Arkansas State, capped her Marion career by winning state final MVP honors and graduated as a three-time all-state selection. Parker earned all-state honors a second year in a row, while Bramucci, Betts, Catt, Burford, and Phipps garnered all-league nods. Phillips and Parker were selected to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Volleyball All-Arkansas team in 2015, a first in program history.
The 2016 Patriots dazzled with a 33-4 record, highlighted by three victories over league rival Jonesboro, but the Golden Hurricane surprised Marion in the state final, with a pair of two-point set victories in the final to earn the state title. The defeat snapped Marion's program-record seven-game winning streak over Jonesboro.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Beasley is quick to pass the credit for her team's success to longtime assistant coaches Shayla Williams and Lucy Sislo, who also coaches the junior high. Norton joined the staff in 2017. Williams and Sislo, who were standout basketball players in college, came to Marion from Walnut Ridge and Nettleton, respectively. Williams joined the staff in 2002 and drove the bus to the team's first state tournament in 2000. Sislo was promoted to head seventh-grade and junior high coach in 2005.
“None of this happens without Coach Williams and Sislo,” said Beasley. “Having Karla-Ann (Norton) back with us has been a breath of fresh air and energy that we needed. They've poured their blood, sweat, and tears into this program, without a moment's hesitation. I'm forever thankful and grateful for them.”
Harrisburg High School standout Bridgett Lowery Hewitt helped Beasley as a volunteer assistant in the program's infant years.
Maintaining a staff for any amount of time offers challenges, but the tight-knit culture cultivated by Beasley, Williams, Sislo, and Norton stands out to current and former players. It's not uncommon to see Marion volleyball players from different eras invade Patriot Volleyball Gym on a Tuesday or Thursday night.
“The amount of former players we see support us during the state tournament makes my heart smile,” said Beasley. “We started our sixth-grade program in 2019, and all the coaches were former Patriot volleyball players, as well as one former player and her husband. It just makes me beam with pride.”
“Coach Beasley has always invested in her players and it produces strong athletes and people,” said Burns. “A lot of people say they're a family, but we really are. The coaches cared more about us than they did winning.”
“I'll always remember the support system we had as players,” said Strayhorn. “I've had coaches in my life that have made me hate the sport, but Beasley, Williams, and Sislo always made me want to be better, for myself, the team, and the program. I still play volleyball today because of my experience playing for them.” “It's gratifying that some of these people started off as players or coaches and became lifelong friends,” said Beasley. “Many of them have become my family and I can't imagine life without them.”