Catholic school coaches: Best of friends and of rivals

Quentin Lunsford, T.J. Barnes and Jeff Meares have formed friendly rivalries as the coaches of three northwest Arkansas parochial schools.
Quentin Lunsford, T.J. Barnes and Jeff Meares have formed friendly rivalries as the coaches of three northwest Arkansas parochial schools.

In the annals of sport legends, very few were brought to their very best without the presence of a rival. Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, Michigan football versus Ohio State, North Carolina versus Duke basketball, Yankees versus Red Sox. The programs are legendary and the memories are many, but one greatly diminished without the other to raise the competitive bar.

That concept is what’s given juice to a genuine friendship and intense rivalry among three Catholic school coaches in western and northwestern Arkansas. Each is notable individually, but collectively they represent a major force not only in their respective schools, but in producing athletes that have successfully gone on to compete in high school and even beyond.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a rivalry, but in the best sense of the word,” said Quentin Lunsford who coached 11 years at St. Vincent de Paul School in Rogers, nine of them as athletic director. “It’s not a rivalry of two teams that don’t like each other. It’s more like a rivalry between family members. When you play your brothers, you want to beat them, but you don’t want to beat them out of a place of spite. It’s out of love.”

“To me Catholic means ‘community,’” said T.J. Barnes, who over the past 15 years has helped build the athletic program at St. Joseph School in Fayetteville, practically from the ground up. “It’s about the community chili dinners and the community quilt drives and it’s what we’ve really tried to install in any of the schools around here and their programs, their teams and their families. We work with each other as much as we can to make sure we’re successful until we play each other. Then we want to beat each other.”

Being in each other’s backyard, Barnes and Lunsford have been slugging it out for years. Both can remember when sports were severely limited at their respective schools, which hurt enrollment, and both know what it’s like to suffer the lumps that come with growing a program. 

They, along with third frienemy Jeff Meares, who’s been coaching at Trinity Catholic High in Fort Smith for 16 years, form a mutual admiration society where deep-seated respect only sweetens the elixir of head-to-head victory.

“You know, in the early years we played St. Joe’s, and they had a little bit of an upper hand on us,” Meares said. “At that time, they had larger numbers, and I thought in order to compete we needed to get along with each other first and foremost and then we need to rely on each other as far as scouting. You know, what’s working for you and what’s not working for you.

“But then it got kind of funny because when we started having some success, T.J. became the biggest sandbagger I’ve ever met in my life. He’d tell me, ‘We’re not real good this year’, which is code for, ‘We’re probably going to kick your butt.’ So then when he’d ask me, ‘What do you guys look like?’ I’d go ‘Man, we’re trash’. We both knew better.”

The coaching threesome has elevated their respective schools, growing the number of sports offered and developing programs into forces to be reckoned with in their league, the Heartland Conference made up of more than 50 faith-based schools in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. 

In recent years, St. Vincent de Paul won the league cross country and track championships; St. Joseph won a volleyball title and Trinity won a state title in boys basketball and a couple in volleyball. In fact, their combined 40 years in coaching have yielded more than 1,500 collective wins. The details of many of those contests have faded with time, but the ones played against each other remain as vivid as ever.

“I personally love playing against these guys,” Meares said. “We demand more of our kids than most schools, simply because the bigger schools we compete against have a larger group of kids to pull from. This makes our teams fighters, in a good way.”

“When I started here years ago, I had no idea there was even a Catholic school in Fort Smith or in Rogers and those are within our umbrella of schools,” Barnes said. “Forming a relationship with them over time, we’re all best of friends, which once again speaks to that whole community aspect. It’s huge. Coach Meares and I talk at least three times a week, sometimes more.”

Lunsford, who left St. Vincent de Paul this spring to return to his hometown and join the teaching staff at St. Joseph, agreed the rivalry games are something special, regardless of what bench you’re sitting on.

“You come to our games between St. Joe and St. Vincent, and both of those gyms are standing room only,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of basketball in this area growing up and coached a lot of games, and I don’t know of an atmosphere for a junior high game that could be matched when they play each other.

“In fact, one of my biggest highlights, honestly, was my last year at St. Vincent. We went 3-0 against St. Joe. We were 1-16 against them before last year, so going 3-0 against them was one of the biggest basketball highlights we’ve had in a long time.”

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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