New Class 1A schools ready for conference scrum

Cody Vaught has spent the past two seasons building Ozark Catholic’s boys basketball team from scratch, but there was something he missed during that time — the ability to compete for a conference championship.

The Griffins won’t have to worry about that in the fall. The Tontitown school will be one of three Northwest Arkansas schools to play conference games for the first time as part of the new eight-team 1A-1 West Conference that’s part of the 2020-22 reclassification cycle.

“You can’t emulate that,” Vaught said. “I’ve missed that more than anything. In Year One, we wouldn’t have been able to compete, and this year we would have done better.

“You just can’t replicate that special feeling of a tournament where you either win or go home, and everybody has that ability, like the NCAA Tournament. It’s exciting to do that, and it’s been a long two years waiting for it. I took it for granted and didn’t realize how special it was when I came over here.”

The new 1A-1 West features three schools — Ozark Catholic, Haas Hall-Rogers and Thaden School — that just started their programs over the past two years. They didn’t play in a conference this season. It also adds The New School and Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy from the old 1A-1, as well as established programs County Line, Mulberry/Pleasant View and St. Paul from the old 1A-4.

A n i n t h s c h o o l , H a a s Hall-Springdale, was added to the league, but that school elected not to field basketball teams next season.

“I want our team to go into this conference with a goal of making the state tournament,” said Haas Hall-Rogers girls Coach Ryan Malashock, whose team finished its inaugural season in February. “I think it’s a goal that the kids will embrace, and we will all enjoy fighting toward.”

Ozark Catholic and Haas Hall-Rogers will not only be in the same conference but they also will have a new home court. The two schools, as well as Haas Hall-Bentonville, will host games at the new Arkansas Athletes Outreach facility that is being built in Rogers.

It’s a far cry for Ozark Catholic, which held its first team practice on a half court outdoors and eventually moved to the AAO facility in Fayetteville while playing its games at two local Catholic churches that had gyms.

“You don’t realize how good you have things,” Vaught said. “And I’ve learned not to take so many things for granted. You take so many things for granted, like having a gym that you can practice in every day. We still don’t, but we hope to have one in a couple of years.”

Both coaches used the same approach in getting their teams ready for what lies ahead, and both of them enjoyed some success while taking some lumps against bigger schools. The Ozark Catholic boys finished 21-11 under Vaught, while Malashock guided the Haas Hall-Rogers girls to a 10-8 record.

Malashock, who was named the Lady Danes’ coach in May, took things a step further. All of his team’s games were played on the road, and he played several of the schools that Haas Hall-Rogers will see in the 1A-1 West.

“I didn’t even buy white uniforms this year,” Malashock said. “I’m going to have to buy those for next year.

“It was a whirlwind season for us, jumping into varsity play right off the bat. When I took the job, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I knew what the vision was. I knew we would be in a conference in Year Two, and I wanted our team to be ready for that.”

Both coaches spoke highly about the new 1A-1 West and its blend of new schools and tradition-rich schools. They also welcome the streamlined travel the conference provides.

The teams also will have everybody back next year because there were no seniors on either roster.

“We’ve been preparing for this since Day One,” Vaught said. “When we first started this, I thought we were ready now. Then you get out on the court and realized we’re not even close.

“Now that we are two years in, I think we are ready now. I think we can compete with normal Class 1A schools now, and it’s been helpful for our kids to play these schools that have juniors and seniors the past two years, and we haven’t had them. I think our kids have walked the walk and realized how hard it is to win.”