Continuing the tradition: The state of LR Athletics

Chasse Conque is always optimistic.

Entering his fifth year at the helm of Little Rock (LR) Athletics, Conque has overseen historic success and expansion within the athletic department with LR teams winning 13 Sun Belt championships, men’s and women’s basketball NCAA Tournament victories, a departmental rebranding, and the addition of a wrestling program. For all his success, Conque, always looking forward, expects more. And with a strong start for LR sports programs this fall, Conque is excited to see where the year heads.

LR volleyball finished 18-11 in the regular season and earned a No. 4 seed for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in which the team lost to No. 1 seed Texas State in their second match. This season’s success is on the heels of a rough season last year in which the team finished 9-19 and failed to qualify for the conference tournament. Conque is happy to see the program back on track.

“It’s great to see that kind of turnaround,” Conque said. “Especially when you consider where we were last year.”

Men’s golf has started the year strong finishing in the top-five in three of their four tournaments and currently ranked 83rdnationally, the highest rank the program has achieved in over 15 years. Additionally, they hosted the LR Invitational at the Chenal Country Club in October, a tournament Conque is proud to have organized.

“We had two top-20 schools play in our home tournament,” Conque said. “It was a major success.”

Men’s and women’s track and field and cross country introduced a new director in September, J.P. Behnke. Behnke, former coach at Oakland University, started at LR the same day of the program’s first meet. Conque emphasized his confidence in Behnke and the need for patience.

“I think he’s going to do great things,” Conque said. “He’s going to need time and patience, but our young people have embraced him.”

Though Conque described swimming and diving as going through a “rebuilding” year in the Missouri Valley Conference, he spoke on the resources the department has put into the program.

“We’ve been able to make some great investments in their program,” Conque said. “We just unveiled the John Torbett Memorial Scoreboard, a $70,000 project that was all privately fundraised over the last six or seven months.”

Usually, LR baseball isn’t a significant topic of conversation in the fall, but the program stole the headlines last month when they played the University of Arkansas in an exhibition game at Gary Hogan Field. The game, attended by 1,400 fans, may open the door for future sporting events between the two universities.

“We have a [baseball] game scheduled against them in April,” Conque said. “I think you will see more of our coaches and the coaches at UA-Fayetteville in contact. We have 11 sports we mutually compete in.”

Perhaps the fall’s greatest success came in women’s soccer. The team, led by first-year coach Mark Foster, finished 13-5-4 and won the Sun Belt Championship. The season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with LR losing 5-1 to Arkansas in Fayetteville.

“Watching Coach Foster in his first season,” Conque said. “I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Conque also emphasized the team’s success off the field.

“To complement what they’ve already done,” Conque said. “The academic piece with them winning the All-Sun Belt Conference Team GPA award last year. Watching them compete for championships on the field and in the classroom is really the perfect storm for us.”

Men’s basketball tipped off last week under the direction of new head coach Darrell Walker. The team, 2-2 on the young season, excites Conque.

“I think we’re going to surprise some people,” Conque said. “We’ve got some talent; we’re young. They’re going to impress our fans and bring hope back to the program.”

Women’s basketball is looking to follow up on last year’s 23-10 season with another impressive finish. Led by longtime head coach Joe Foley, Conque has confidence in the direction the program is heading.

“I’m confident Coach Foley will continue in his success,” Conque said. “He’s got a very talented team and has one of the greatest non-conference schedules in the country.”

Wrestling, announced as an addition to the athletic department in March, is in the process of building the program before entering competition next fall. In June, Conque introduced Neil Erisman as the program’s first head coach and in August announced plans for the Greg Hatcher Wrestling Center, a state-of-the-art wrestling-specific facility to be built on campus.

Conque shed light on the decision to add wrestling and what Hatcher’s donation allowed LR to do.

“Greg Hatcher has committed a $1.42 million gift,” Conque said. “Our wrestling program will carry about 35 student-athletes. We’re going to fully fund our female sports, so you’ll see us go from about 190 student-athletes this year to 270 in two years. We bought in to give us an edge; we’re the only Division I [wrestling] program in the state.”

Despite LR Athletics’ success, UA Little Rock is struggling. With enrollment down, Conque’s department has had to face the same financial hardships as the rest of the school.

“We’re very much a part of the campus culture,” Conque said. “We’ve had to take our budget cuts, but we’re trying to show proactive ways that we can help the institution.”

Conque highlighted the importance of enrollment growth and the factor it played in adding wrestling.

“We want to make sure we’re on point with our goals and that in the next two years we can deliver the 265-270 student-athletes.”

Conque also discussed the part athletics can play in solving the university’s troubles.

“I think having strong athletics helps your university’s brand and image,” Conque said. “We have to use athletics in the recruitment of all students, and we have to make sure we’re doing a good job engaging with our campus and students to give them incentives to come and be part of what we’re trying to build.”

Conque isn’t resting on his laurels with the early season success of LR teams. Despite his optimism, he knows there’s no time to become complacent.

“I’m very proud of where we are,” Conque said. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

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