By John Balch
“This is a monumental occasion for the history of Umpire High School,” said Coach Kenny Tabler last Wednesday as he stood center court in the school’s historic gymnasium.
Seated behind the coach were two senior Umpire Wildcats – Desmond Pinson and Dusty Kesterson – who were preparing to sign up to play basketball with National Park Community College in Hot Springs. The coach was also flanked by Umpire alumni, who all went on to play basketball on the college level and were described by Principal Carla Golden as an “elite group.”
The entire student population and much of the community attended the event and Tabler told those gathered that he hopes the event revitalizes the dormant Umpire tradition of having players move on to the college ranks.
The tradition began in 1967 when the late Edsal Kesterson, who was represented at the event by his father Lloyd Kesterson, went to play for Southern Arkansas University. The last Umpire graduate to play on the college level was Cheyne Manning, who walked on at the University of Central Arkansas in 1993.
In between Edsal Kesterson playing for the Muleriders and Manning stepping on the court with the Bears, there were nine others who were members of the elite group Golden mentioned in her opening remarks.
Also representing the Wildcats were Anthony Ashbrooks, class of 1978, SAU; Coach Tabler, class of 1984, Garland County Community College (now National Park Community College); Brian Hill, class of 1985, GCCC; and Bobby Pinson, class of 1987, GCCC.
Representing the Lady Wildcats were Darla (Johnson) Pinkerton, class of 1983, SAU; Phoebe (Faulkner) Pinson, class of 1986, GCCC; Cheryl (Maxwell) Keith, class of 1986, West Ark Community College (now University of Arkansas – Fort Smith); Angela (Allman) Sharp, class of 1988, SAU; and the late Deanna Burgess, class of 1992, Arkansas Tech University. Pinkerton was unable to attend and Burgess was represented at the event by her sister, Betty Burgess.
“All of us from Umpire should remember this day because it’s something that a small school doesn’t have happen very often,” Tabler said as the two 2017 seniors prepared to ink for the inaugural season of basketball at NPCC.
NPCC Coach Jason Hudnell said the college’s basketball program ended in 1991 when the former GCCC Lakers played their final game of the season. Hudnell said the new Nighthawks are expected to pick up where the Lakers left off and revitalize what was a “dark empty gym” on the Hot Springs campus.
“It’s a fresh start for us and right here in Umpire, too,” Hudnell said.
Hudnell also made his comments from center court of one of the most unique basketball venues in the state. Tabler said the gym was affectionately called “The Pit” in the 1980s due to the high seating areas that form a U-shape in the balcony above. The gym was built in 1951 and still plays host to the state’s longest-running junior high tournament, which began 66 years ago.
Tabler also said the gym, modeled after the historic Langley Gym just down the road, is the only one in the state still in use with balcony seating and a “restraining line,” a dotted line used to inbound the ball due to the close confines.
Tabler used the occasion to issue a challenge to the young students who crowded one end of the gym to make things happen on and off the court.
“This doesn’t happen by accident,” he said after acknowledging the past and present accomplishments of the Umpire players. “It takes a lot of dedication, devotion and hard work to make this happen. I want everyone of you kids to remember this day and use it as a motivational tool going forward.”