Sport rising in popularity in state
ALMA — Inside one of Arkansas’ most pristine high school basketball arenas, athletes from as far away as Piggott and Rison prepare body and mind in an auxiliary weight room. More than 400 athletes from more than 50 Arkansas schools gathered in April to compete in the state high school powerlifting championships. Schools from Class 2A to 7A competed in the event. The state championships are not sanctioned by the Arkansas Activities Association.
For the last three years, Alma has hosted the state championship event. It was held in Russellville prior to moving to Alma. Doug Loughridge, the head football coach at Alma, said his school took over as host in order to keep it the event alive. Loughridge believes powerlifting is an asset to his school’s overall athletic program.
“Every place I’ve coached I’ve taken teams to the state meet. I had a lot of vested interest in not seeing it die,” said Loughridge, who’s won a state weightlifting title at each coaching stop.
Former University of Arkansas, Fayetteville football player David Bazzell, now a well-known in-state media personality, founded the state high school weightlifting championships in the early 1990s following a four-year career with the Razorbacks. Multiple attempts to reach Bazzell for comment in this story were unsuccessful.
Powerlifting, in the same vein as indoor track, is not sanctioned by the AAA, but has become an integral part of offseason football programs across the state. The “unwritten rule” among coaches is the male competitors
are part of their school’s football and offseason weight programs.
Like wrestling, which the AAA added as a sanctioned sport in recent years, athletes of any weight can excel in powerlifting. The classes are grouped by a lifter’s weight. The lifters compete in two different lifts — the bench press and powerclean. Their total weight lifted in those two events are combined to determine the champions in each weight class.
At Rison High School, a Class 2A program with 30 wins since 2014, football coach Clay Totty often must put 130-pound players on the field out of necessity on Friday nights. Powerlifting gives those players the strength needed to compete on the field, he said.
“With the weightlifting, I’ve seen the confidence shoot up in my players,” said Totty, who’s team grabbed the 2A powerlifting crown this spring. “It’s something that’s a big deal to us. When you get in the offseason, a competitor wants to compete. Through the years I just saw how it helped guys from a motivation standpoint. You’ve got something to gauge yourself by.”
This past spring, Greenwood, Alma and Booneville — all longtime successful football programs — won state weightlifting titles in their respective classifications. Greenwood’s John Womack won the heavyweight individual title with a combined lift of 770 pounds, including a state record 385-pound rep in the powerclean.
Loughridge and Totty agree there are parallels in successful weight programs and those making state playoff runs on the football field.
“You can tell who participates year in and year out,” Totty said. “At our level and in our area it would be a Junction City, Mount Ida, El Dorado. To me, it’s a correlation to success.”
Loughridge said he would welcome more involvement from schools in Northwest Arkansas. A number of schools, including Rison, Hoxie and Junction City, the 2017 class 3A champion, make the 4 to 5 hour drive to Alma annually, barring travel restrictions, which Totty’s program dealt with in 2015 and 2016.
Scheduling conflicts, too, can prohibit schools from making the state meet, which entails at least six months of advanced planning. Regional and state spring tournaments, proms, and even the Razorbacks’ annual Red-White spring football game can become obstacles.
Loughridge believes powerlifting is an ideal match for a successful football program, and it’s hard to argue that point since the Airedales won the 5A-West Conference title last fall and are favored again this season. He would also like to see the state’s governing body for athletics step in to include powerlifting with the other sanctioned sports.
“I would like to see it. It’s something for those guys in the offseason to compete in,” he said. “It’s something we’ve kind of kept alive.”
Alma High School has hosted the high school state weightlifting championships each of the past three years. More than 50 teams and 400 athletes competed for top honors in 2017.