‘Big plays on big stages’
Halls leads Mustangs to new heights
MURRAY — Pick a season, and Austin Halls of Murray has left his mark in Iowa sports history.
A year ago as a junior, Halls led the state in hitting with a .603 batting average. His last three years, the Mustang baseball team was 52-19.
In track, a sport he admits comes in fourth in his four-sport stardom as a Mustang, he ran twice at the state meet. As a freshman he qualified for the 4x800 relay, and this year as a senior he ran in the open 800 meters at state for a team that won three straight conference track championships.
But it’s in basketball and football, his true passions, that Halls has his name attached to “a dozen to 15” state leader charts, according to longtime Murray coach Danny Jensen.
This past winter, Halls became the state’s all-time career leader in steals with 459. He ranks seventh all-time in scoring with 2,360 points, and that’s while playing with another 1,500-point scorer in his class, Cody Scroggie.
Many of his assists went to Scroggie, as Halls finished his career fifth on Iowa’s all-time chart with 704 assists. Making all-state for the second time, as a senior Halls averaged 25.1 points, 7.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 5.1 steals.
The Mustangs were 45-4 during the past two seasons, reaching the district finals in a loss to state qualifier Nodaway Valley in 2012, and the substate in a loss to Ankeny Christian Academy this year after knocking off area rival Mount Ayr in a shootout the previous night.
It’s the hardcourt where Halls, the youngest of four children of Ted and Melanie Halls, will pursue his collegiate career at Graceland University.
But it’s the football field where Halls provided Murray fans with some of the biggest thrills as a three-year starter at quarterback and defensive back. Halls led the Mustangs to a 31-6 record those three years, including back-to-back appearances in the UNI-Dome in the state playoffs.
In 2011 the Mustangs made it all the way to the Eight-Man state finals, losing to Fremont-Mills after knocking off Clarksville in the semifinals in their first-ever UNI-Dome appearance. Last year, Halls was right in the middle of a record-setting playoff semifinal game, a 78-76 loss to Gilbertville Don Bosco. It was the highest-scoring playoff game in Iowa history.
Last fall, Halls was the instigator of a play that ended up ranking No. 2 on WOI-TV’s Central Iowa Plays of the Year. Jensen recalls the play from the playoff victory over longtime nemesis Adair-Casey.
“We were on about our own 30-yard line,” said Jensen, a football volunteer assistant coach and assistant basketball coach during Hall’s career. “Austin scrambled around, breaking four or five tackles. Finally he got loose along the right sideline, stopped and threw across the field to his left to Andrew Rider, at about their 5-yard line. Andrew broke a tackle for a touchdown. It was an amazing play. I remember thinking, that’s not ordinary!”
Big plays on big stages. Austin Halls made a career of them. Today he receives the first South Central Iowa Male Athlete of the Year Award from the Creston News Advertiser and Osceola Sentinel-Tribune.
Halls was one of five finalists from the 12 area high schools covered by the two newspapers.
“Honestly, it does mean quite a bit,” Halls said when receiving the award from OST Sports Editor Scott Vicker, “because there are a lot of good athletes in the area. A lot of success in the area as a whole. I’ve followed all the guys who are finalists. It’s a big accomplishment to be mentioned with them. And it also means a lot to represent the town of Murray. It carries over to what they’ve done for me. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Keith Shields, who coached Halls in football and track, said Halls has always been quick to be gracious toward teammates and supporters, despite his individual accolades.
“Austin is probably the biggest competitor in anything he’s involved in than anyone I’ve been around,” Shields said. “But he’ll be the first to give credit to his teammates, and people who gave him support throughout the whole time he’s been at Murray. He’s put in a lot of hard work, and he’s very deserving of this award.”
Jensen said Austin began tagging along with his older brother, Justin, to Sunday open gyms at Murray when he was still in elementary school. He never backed down from the competition.
“In my 34 years at Murray, he’s by far the most competitive and most self-driven male athlete we have coached here,” said Jensen, the school’s elementary principal. “He’s done everything at such a high level, and through his leadership he brought other kids to that level.”
Halls said he is perhaps most proud of the Mustangs reaching the state championship game in football. Before that season, Murray had never won a playoff game.
“To get to that level, and to get past teams like Lenox and Adair-Casey to get there, and then win a game up there against a good team like Clarksville,” Halls said, “that showed what we are capable of here in Murray. The way we responded to the opportunity, and to see everybody just soaking it in, there’s nothing like it.”
Halls has played off-season AAU basketball with the likes of Ankeny’s Ted Friedman and West Des Moines Valley’s Peter Jok. He’s tasted competition at the highest level in basketball, yet he remains loyal to the opportunity to put on a Murray High School uniform. He has no regrets about spending his career at a small school.
“I’ve had older siblings go through here, and there’s a lot of pride,” Halls said. “It’s still a challenge. There are good ballplayers at the 1A and 2A level. I played AAU ball with guys like Braydee Poore at Mount Ayr, and later we competed against each other (at districts). Nodaway Valley had good players, and we were up on them through three quarters in our district final. There were challenges and I loved it. I made it to state in football and track. I just wish we could have gotten there in basketball.”
Halls didn’t play football as a freshman, choosing instead to play fall AAU basketball on a Legacy Club team directed by former Iowa player Kenyon Murray. He learned a lot and improved his game, but by the time fall rolled around his sophomore year, he was back to being a four-sport athlete.
“I like to win, and I think playing anything competitively will keep that fire going,” Halls said. “When I played football that was my main focus, but I was always willing to pick up a basketball. Track keeps you in shape, and I’ve been playing baseball with these guys since I was 5 years old. It was a fun sport for me, too, and even though I was playing AAU basketball, I couldn’t imagine not playing baseball.”
Halls credits basketball coach Darin Wookey with giving him a long leash and trusting him to make plays. For every turnover that would occur through Halls’ hair-on-fire attacking style, there were four or five spectacular plays resulting in baskets off of daring passes or a clever steal sparking a fast break.
It was Ankeny Christian’s grinding, slow-down approach, and double-teams on Halls out front, that finally ground that winning formula to a halt in the substate final last winter.
“It was tough, especially after playing Mount Ayr the night before and going up and down the court,” Halls said. “We kind of pressured ourselves, and we didn’t rebound well enough that night. The year before, we were up on Nodaway Valley going into the fourth, but I think we lost our legs a little bit. And T.J. Bower had a great game for them that night.”
Jensen said Wookey’s system allowed Halls to flourish, and in turn, created opportunities for his teammates.
“To finish sixth in the state in scoring, and you look at assists and he’s fifth in that as well,” Wookey said, “that speaks volumes for his play and what he was able to accomplish. Obviously, setting the state steals record was quite an accomplishment. I’ve never had a kid who could anticipate like he could. A lot of those assists were to Cody on fast breaks. They would get it up and down the floor against pressure.”
Halls said it was the perfect program for his game to grow, and he feels fortunate to have such a successful group of teammates go through Murray High School at the same time. Scroggie and Eddie Otto are joining him at Graceland, as members of the football team.
“I watched all of our guys grow and start to believe in themselves to make big plays on big stages,” Halls said. “Our senior year, there was no more doubting ourselves at all. It was great to be part of teams that let the community know that state championships are possible here. It’s not impossible to get there.”
Halls reached out for the full high school experience, too. An outstanding student with a 3.25 GPA, he participated in several activities not related to athletics.
Halls served as senior class president, was president of the school’s FFA chapter, participated in FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America) and in school plays.
“I love school itself,” Halls said. “I love to learn. I feel like you’re kind of always improving yourself. I didn’t want to leave any regrets. Corey McCracken, a friend of mine, was in drama. So, I talked the football guys into going out for drama. We got to be the Backstreet Boys. We performed, and that was a good experience. Stuff like FFA, that made me take on some responsibility.”
Those are skills that could help him as he majors in business administration at Graceland and pursues a career, Halls noted.
“Austin got involved in a lot of different things,” Shields said. “He isn’t afraid to step out in different roles that he maybe isn’t comfortable in right away. He spreads himself out and is a very knowledgeable kid.”
Jensen said many times during Halls’ athletic career, he said to himself, “We’re never going to see that again.”
“When the lights came on, he was there,” Jensen said. “The bigger games, those were the best for him. Conference tournament finals, playoff games, he enjoyed those situations. And as he matured he became a leader.
“To experience this, it meant a lot to me,” Jensen added. “The thrills he gave me late in my career. Like that 78-76 semifinal football game. Wow. Sometimes kids don’t realize what they just did. It was a blast.”
When Murray lost its district semifinal baseball game to Lenox this summer, Halls took off a Murray uniform for the final time. He said it was time to move on to new challenges, but he relished the high school years, too.
“I’ll just miss the atmosphere, the basketball and football atmosphere, the intensity and playing with friends you grew up with,” Halls said. “When we won that Adair-Casey game to go to the Dome, it was an accomplishment with kids you played recess football with every year as kids. That’s what made it so great.”