De Queen students will report Aug. 13 for the first day of the school year. For the first time in two and half decades, Tracy Nealy will not be on the De Queen staff. Nealy resigned from De Queen last spring and is now laying the ground work to start a softball program at the University of Arkansas - Rich Mountain in Mena.
“I watched a lot more softball this summer than I ever have in a summer before,” Nealy said. “In college you’re looking for players. Players are looking for a place to play. After 34 years of high school coaching, it’s kind of refreshing looking for your own players.”
In the last two months Nealy has been to softball showcases at Plano and McKinney, Tex., as well as Tulsa, Okla. “The best thing about this summer has been making contacts, not just with high school coaches, but also with summer team coaches,” he said.
The Rich Mountain team, scheduled to take the field in 2020, is starting from scratch. “You have got to start out with 20 kids,” Nealy said. “Next year I won’t have to look for 20, more like 10 to 15.”
As well as having no players yet, the team has no place to play. An old field at Mena’s McMillan Park is being renovated for home games. “It’s a two phase project. First is fixing the inner field. Phase two is the outside part,” Nealy explained. “We got started last week.”
When finished, the facility will have dressing rooms and coaches’ offices. Housing for athletes is being built at the UARM campus. “We broke ground for dorms. There will eventually be 153 beds,” Nealy noted.
Rich Mountain is part of a trend of Arkansas community college which are creating or expanding their athletic programs. The school’s first venture into athletics came last fall with cross country. Soccer is being added this fall with track and field slated for next spring. Baseball as well as softball is slated for 2020.
UARM’s baseball program will be led by Lance Spigner after a long and legendary career at Horatio. With Nealy now in the fold, the Rich Mountain coaching staff now includes the last two Horatio baseball coaches. Before coming to De Queen, Nealy coached multiple sports, including baseball, at Horatio High. Spigner followed him in that position.
Ironically, Nealy came to De Queen to get out of coaching. His first position for the school was elementary physical education teacher. Nealy, an avid softball player himself, was requested by former De Queen Superintendent Bill Blackwood to help get a De Queen high softball program started.
The Lady Leopards played slow pitch from 1996-99. The fast pitch game began in 2000. Nealy resigned after the 2019 season with a record of 433-187, including a state championship, six state final four appearances, six conference titles and eight conference runner-up finishes.
In 1998 Nealy became De Queen senior girls basketball coach. That first team won 24 games and the conference and regional titles. The Lady Leopards were state champions in 2003. The 2004 team reached the final four. “We lost to Ozark at Ozark in overtime,” Nealy recalled.
The 2010-11 season was his last as basketball coach. “My daughter Nikki got a scholarship to SAU. I wanted to watch her play but couldn’t if I were coaching,” he said.
In the fall of that year he became the Leopard golf coach. De Queen had either a team or an individual in the state golf tournament all nine years he coached the sport.
In addition to coaching, Nealy taught drivers education for 17 years. “I nearly got killed five times,” he said. In each incident the driver was a 12th grade male.
The scariest came at the intersection of Collin Raye and Ninth St. “We were coming down the hill from Kern Heights. I told him to take a left at the light,” Nealy remembered. The student driver proceed to start a left turn.
“The light was red. If I hadn’t hit my brake, we would have pulled out right in front of an 18 wheeler. He would have pancaked us.”
Nealy said he still reads the list of traffic citations. “I always have to see if my former students got driving violations,” he related. “When I see one, I always say ‘We talked about that in class.’”
Most partings are bittersweet. Nealy’s departure from De Queen is no exception. “The thing I miss more than anything is the comradery among the coaches at De Queen, especially my assistants, coach (Lesley) Simmons and coach (Chad) Lites. That was a really special bond,” he said.
Winning state titles in two sports is rare for a coach. Although both were thrilling, Nealy said the “softball title is a little more special.” That season began with tragedy for Nealy’s family when his daughter J.K. passed away unexpectedly. J.K. starred for the softball Lady Leopards during high school and remained one of the team’s biggest boosters.
That 2017 team won the 5A championship with a senior class that reached the final four three times.
Nealy feels the Lady Leopard softball program is in good condition. “De Queen has some good players coming back. The bottom line is they’ll hit the field expecting to win. The program has always been competitive and I see it staying competitive,” he said.
“Coach (Caitlin) Collins is a great hire, it’s great that coach Simmons stayed on. I’m excited to see what will happen.”
After getting De Queen’s softball program off the ground Nealy now has the rare opportunity to start a college program. “I’m very happy to have a chance to get this thing rolling. It will only help Arkansas softball,” he said. “In my 25 years at De Queen, I had several players who were good enough to play at the junior college level but didn’t have the opportunity.”
Future Arkansas high school players will have more opportunities to continue to play. He noted that Rich Mountain is not the only community college to begin softball. SAU Tech and National Park will field teams for the first time next spring.
UA Rich Mountain will be a year behind them, but the initial stages of program building at the school are off to a good start. Nealy began searching for players early.
“I officially started in July, but I went to showcases in June,” he said.
“All the administrators have been very positive. Everybody seems to be very excited. Everything has been good so far. We’ll see.”