Garland County will be well represented at the 2022 Arkansas Activities Association All-Star volleyball game in June.
Fountain Lake’s Sophie Skinner and Lake Hamilton’s Audri Winfrey made the West All-Star roster, and Lakeside head coach Rhonda Thigpen was named head coach of the West All-Star team. Lakeside’s Madi Belle Landry was also included on the roster as a manager.
“It is indeed an honor,” Thigpen said. “I’m just so privileged and so blessed to get to have this opportunity. I feel like Lakeside helped me get that by letting me coach at the high school level over there and have such great players around.”
Lakeside junior high volleyball coach April Lawson will join the West’s staff at the All-Star game as well.
“She’s won numerous championships in junior high that’s helped (me) with players moving up to high school,” Thigpen said.
Thigpen added that there are so many great volleyball players around the state, and she emphasized the importance of the All-Star game finally returning after a COVID-19 hiatus.
“There’s so many coaches I’ll get to work with but just knowing how many great players that get to come out of COVID and play again in front of people,” she said. “To bring volleyball back and to bring our sports back to the forefront in the summer for all to see at the All-Star games, it’ll just be such a joy.”
Thigpen got familiar with Winfrey as a challenging opponent during matches between Lakeside and Lake Hamilton.
Now as coach of the West All-Star team, Thigpen will get to coach the Lady Wolves’ outside hitter.
“I’ve had to play across the net from her,” Thigpen said. “I would always set a scouting report up, and Audri, I knew where she was hitting. My girls always knew where she was on the floor. Now I get to know where she is on the floor because she’s going to be on my floor. I tell you what — that girl can play.”
Winfrey led Lake Hamilton to a 9-3 conference record and a berth in the state tournament last season.
“It has been a few years since we’ve had anybody in the All-Stars,” Lake Hamilton head coach Karen Smith said. “I’m super proud to have Audri represent Lake Hamilton in the All-Star game, so it makes me feel very proud.”
Smith highlighted Winfrey’s hard work and leadership on the court as two attributes that have led her to being selected as an All-Star.
“As far as skill wise, she’s worked really hard to master a lot of skills that she was lacking on before, so it showed this year,” Smith said. “She looked really good this year. To be frankly honest she hits hard as nails.”
Winfrey is a dominant athlete in more than just one sport. The senior helped lead Lake Hamilton’s girls basketball team to a 25-3 record this season, and Winfrey signed to play collegiate basketball at Ouachita Baptist University.
“She’s worked really hard to be where she is now today,” Smith said. “Again, that shows all of her hard work and time that she’s put in because she doesn’t just play volleyball. … She does a lot more than just one sport, so Audri has to work really hard to be good at what she’s doing. She puts in a lot of extra time.”
Smith said that while Winfrey making the All-Star team does show younger players that hard work pays off, Winfrey leads by example in other ways as well.
“I don’t think it’s all work ethic,” Smith said. “The fact that she keeps her grades, that she socializes with the younger girls that play volleyball and she still has really close teammates in basketball that she socializes with. She’s just an all around kid that everybody wants to be around.”
The Lady Wolves will miss Winfrey’s leadership on the court next season.
“There’s a lot of things about Audri that I’m going to miss,” Smith said. “I think the most is Audri always got it done when you needed someone to get it done. It’s always nice to have someone on the team wanting the ball, wanting to put it away, wanting to terminate the ball, wanting to pick everybody up and get everybody back to where they need to be.”
Skinner is a four time All-State and All-Conference setter who led Fountain Lake to a playoff appearance last season. Skinner was voted to the Under Armor All-America team and signed to play Division I volleyball at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Fountain Lake head coach Tina Moore said it is a “super honor” for her to have an athlete on the All-Star team.
“When we set goals for Sophie at the beginning of her senior year and checked off everything that she wanted to accomplish, this is obviously the last (honor) she can be awarded before she graduates,” Moore said. “This was the last little notch on that belt for her to accomplish. Every goal she set her senior year she accomplished, and this just tops it off.”
Thigpen remembers when Skinner attended a volleyball camp at Henderson State.
“Years ago Sophie actually came to one of my Henderson State camps when I coached in college she came, and I remembered then and that stuck with me,” Thigpen said. “To get to see Sophie at the All-American level and know she’s going to represent our county and our area in the All-Star game and for all to see, that’s a privilege.”
Moore said Skinner’s skill set is amazing, and that is just part of the reason the Fountain Lake senior made the All-Star team.
“Her skillset is by far above and beyond what a lot of people ever get to,” Moore said. “Her leadership qualities, her teamwork, and just making her teammates better, that’s always been our goal. Her job is not always a glory job because she is a setter. Anything she can do to make her teammates better is what she strives to do.”
Skinner racked up a plethora of awards in her time as a Lady Cobra and created her own legacy while adding to Fountain Lake’s legacy.
“Listen, it just puts Fountain Lake on the map,” Moore said. “It just proves we have players here that can compete at every level and be awarded at every level. Sophie’s just set the bar. A perfect ending to a great, great career.”
Just a sophomore, Landry was selected to the West All-Star team as a manager.
“Whoever the manager is, she’s getting selected as someone we would hope they get to learn about the All-Stars and they get to showcase their skills with the best in the state,” Thigpen said. “She’ll get to do that. She’ll get to practice with them.”
After a great sophomore season at Lakeside, Thigpen said Landry simply just “brings it.”
“Whatever she does, she does it 100%,” she said. “I’m proud to say I’m her coach, and I’m proud that she got selected to represent upcoming (players). Because the person that is the manager is an upcoming prospect to look at. I hope everybody looks at her that way. We’re just excited for Lakeside to be represented out there.”
The All-Star volleyball game takes place on June 24, and Thigpen said she wants her players to celebrate the memory of being on the All-Star team for years after the game.
“Every player I’ve talked to on my All-Star roster, I told them I want this to be a moment they’ll remember forever,” Thigpen said. “I was an All-Star at one time. I was so proud of my team I was on and when they went on in life and were successful coaches or successful in business, I was proud to say I was on that All-Star team with them.”