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At Arkansas Baptist, a vision becomes reality

As Danny Davis’ high school football days drew to a close,
he was eyeing a Division I career but a low test score put that dream on hold.

In the past, Davis’
options would have been limited. Junior college football in Arkansas
was nonexistent, and there were few places for people like him to turn.

Then Charles Ripley and Arkansas Baptist decided to change

“We’re filling a void. Serving the underserved is our
motto,” Ripley said Friday. “Our foundation is taking care of our
own. We don’t need other states taking care of our kids.”

Practice is under way for Arkansas Baptist’s new football
team, the state’s lone junior college program in that sport. The Little
Rock school revamped its athletic department under
Ripley, its athletic director, and Fitz Hill, the school’s president. Ripley, a
former Little Rock Parkview basketball coach, has worked for years to create
this type of opportunity for young athletes who might otherwise slip through
the cracks of the educational system.

Coach Richard Wilson’s Buffaloes open their football season
Sept. 1 in Athens, Texas,
against Trinity Valley
Community College. Davis
is one of dozens of players who turned out this week for practice. Davis,
of Blytheville, says schools like Arkansas,
Arkansas State and Texas A&M were
looking at him.

“My ACT wasn’t high enough,” said Davis, a
19-year-old who has played running back and linebacker. “So I came here so
I could get everything straightened out. Hopefully I can go to one of them by
the end of this year or next year.”

Ripley said he’s been trying to start this kind of program
since around 1999 along with Hill, a former football coach himself. Ripley said
he talked to other schools about implementing his vision.

“Really made a hard push at Pulaski Tech, just didn’t
quite get it done,” Ripley said.

But Hill became Arkansas Baptist’s president in early 2006.
Hill, who earned his doctorate in higher education at the University
of Arkansas, was an assistant coach
at Arkansas and a head coach at San
Jose State.

Hill and Ripley announced Arkansas Baptist’s new athletic
plans last year. Ripley is coaching basketball. Wilson, who played at Arkansas
and Central Arkansas and has coached at several schools,
was introduced as the football coach this year.

Wilson said the
number of players in camp is hard to determine.

“Right now, we’re fluctuating between 180 to about 150.
Some kids have problems and they came the first day and they haven’t been back.
When I think it’s all said and done, we’ll have about 160-plus,” he said.
“We see ourselves as a developmental program, so I’m not really trying to
cut kids. I’m trying to teach them football and teach them something about

Arkansas Baptist officials have been determined to make the
mix of academics and athletics work, saying the chance to play a sport can be a
great incentive for a young person who might not otherwise enroll in college.
The school can also be more cost-effective, according to Joseph Efird, an
18-year-old offensive lineman from Magnet
Cove High School.
Efird said he picked Arkansas Baptist instead of some Division II schools in
the state.

“This is like a second chance. I get to go here and
prove myself, then next year, I’ll get hopefully a scholarship,” Efird

Davis was also
concerned about what it would have cost to pursue his football career if not
for Arkansas Baptist.

“I’d probably be somewhere paying a lot of money to go
to school and try to get my grades up for a year,” Davis
said. “I’d have to sit out for a year. I wouldn’t have liked that. … I’m
trying to stay in football shape.”

Ripley said other Arkansas
colleges are happy with Arkansas Baptist’s efforts.

“Every school in the state’s for us giving them another
pool to recruit on and everything,” he said.

Formerly an NAIA school, Arkansas Baptist is now with the
National Junior College Athletic Association. The football team will compete as
an independent at first, but hopes to join a conference soon. The 2007 schedule
includes eight games.

Ripley hopes the team will provide an additional
entertainment option in central Arkansas,
although only two home games will be played in Little Rock
this season, both at War Memorial Stadium.

“You’ve got to pay your dues the first year,” he

The coaching staff has faced some early challenges, Wilson
explained while standing near the Buffaloes’ practice field at a boys and girls
club in southwest Little Rock.

“Most of my staff didn’t get here until the fourth week
of July. We’ve got a situation where we’ve got kids that had not been
evaluated. We didn’t know how many linemen we had,” Wilson
said. “When most people would come in the first three days in shorts, and
you’d install your offense, for us it’s been like a combine. So we’re actually
evaluating kids and trying to move them around and getting them in a position
where they can help the team.”

As far as wins and losses, well, Wilson
said he outlined two goals for the team.

“The Buffs gotta learn how not to beat the Buffs, so we
can’t be our own worst enemy,” he said. “And the second thing is,
when the season’s over, I just want our opponents to put the film on and say,
‘You know something? It’s a first-year program, but boy did they play

– Associated Press

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