Conway's Clardy hard to stop

As the Conway girls' basketball team loaded onto its bus and headed to Hot Springs in March 2014, Chloe Clardy and Jaiden Williams stood in the parking lot and watched. Together, they held a sign that read, "Proud to be a Wampus Cat."

The pair -- both of whom were in elementary school at the time -- was years away from being part of the team that included two future All-SEC selections, Jordan Danberry and Alexis Tolefree.

But by then, Jaiden knew that her friend was well on her way.

"We were young, of course, but she's always been the best on our teams," Williams said of Clardy. "She was always quiet and didn't say much, but you could tell that she was going to be big."

Big still might've been an understatement. Just a year and a half into her high school career, Clardy, a sophomore, has already reached 1,000 points and very well may surpass Tolefree's Lady Wampus Cat scoring record later this year. As a freshman, she set Conway's single-season scoring record en route to earning Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Underclassman of the Year honors -- oh, and she can potentially break her own record this season.

Last season, she led the Wampus Cats to a 22-8 record and a spot in the 6A state semifinals, all while racking up close to 25 Division I offers, including offers from all 14 SEC programs, and being ranked by ESPN as the nation's No. 22 sophomore.

Perhaps what stands out most about the 5-9 Clardy is how she's evolved over just the course of the past year as Conway (11-3) is again in the mix for a state title, which would be its first since that 2014 crown.

"Last year, she was pretty quiet in practice, and it was probably because we had a lot of seniors," Coach Ashley Hutchcraft said. "Now it's, 'This is my team, I'm going to be the vocal leader,' and if you come to practice, you're going to hear her challenging her teammates and our team to be better. ... As far as effort and energy, it's always there. And I think that's what makes her so special."

It wasn't a secret when Clardy arrived on the scene as a freshman in November 2019. Coaches knew the lanky freshman had been playing up for the Wampus Cats' ninth-grade team since she was in seventh grade.

But when Clardy dropped a game-high 31 points on eventual state champion Fort Smith Northside in the team's first meeting last January, Lady Bears Coach Rickey Smith fully realized what he was up against.

Smith, whose Northside team can claim the state's current No. 1 prospect in senior and University of Arkansas signee Jersey Wolfenbarger, specifically pointed to Clardy's pull-up jumper and explosiveness as rare skills that stood out from that first matchup.

This year, though, teams have gotten to see a different side of Arkansas' second-ranked recruit.

"Last year as a freshman, I think she looked to score a whole hell of a lot more than she does now," North Little Rock Coach Daryl Fimple said. "She makes her teammates a lot better, and I think that's the best praise you can give any kid.

"She understands where traps are coming and how to get it out of her hands and she never panics. Her body language is spectacular for a sophomore. I've never seen anything like it in terms of composure."

The only local player Fimple could compare Clardy to was former Central Arkansas Christian and current Connecticut standout Christyn Williams.

That's meant added attention on the offensive end of the floor, with double teams often coming Clardy's way. But it's a challenge the sophomore is more prepared to handle this season.

"Our assistant coach [LaShanta Johnson], she always tells me to make people know why they're guarding me like that," Clardy said. "It motivates me to see people guarding me like that because they think I'm good, so it motivates me to play harder."

And when Conway doesn't have the ball, Hutchcraft still expects a lot out of her star.

Clardy often asks for the challenge of defending an opponent's best player straight up. Against Northside, Clardy held Wolfenbarger to 17 points in a 65-62 Wampus Cats loss, and Friday, Little Rock Central's 1,000-point scorer Lauryn Pendleton managed 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting thanks to Clardy's efforts.

For all Clardy does on the floor, she's had to take an even bigger leap away from it.

Despite having four seniors on last season's team, a lack of leadership was something that led to some of Conway's struggles, according to Clardy.

Neither Hutchcraft, nor Williams, described Clardy as a natural vocal leader, so, while Wampus Cats' star is not afraid to speak up in practice, Clardy does most of her talking in a team group chat.

It's not that she's unwilling to talk during the games -- Clardy simply attributes it to being "focused" on the action.

But that group chat has given Clardy a place to assert herself in a way that wasn't all that shocking to her longtime friend.

"Now that the seniors are gone, she doesn't have a choice but to be the leader," Williams said. "She's been more vocal, but her work ethic always shows the type of leader she is. She leads by example -- she's not going to yell at you but she's going to tell you what she needs from you and how we're going to succeed as a team."

That success has borne out in Conway's results. The Wampus Cats' only two losses since falling in their season opener have come against DeSoto (Texas), the nation's No. 4 team, and state No. 1 Fort Smith Northside.

Conway has also gotten the benefit of a healthy Williams along with the emergence of sophomore Savannah Scott in the post. But both their games are only elevated by Clardy, whose future -- both short and long term -- is bright.

The same can't be said for those who will have to face her anytime soon.

"I don't think anyone has the answer to [slowing her down]," Smith said. "I don't think you ever stop a great player. You may slow her down a little bit but you really, really struggle to even slow down a player like that.

"If I did have the answer, I wouldn't tell you because I wouldn't want her to read it in the paper. But I've got the news for you: I don't have it."