Sizing up the gridiron competition this fall
By Richard White
With the end of the AAA dead period and the start of FASDOGS this week, Greenwood High School football fans are now counting the days until the September 1st regular season opener at Smith Robinson Stadium – about 50 days or exactly seven weeks from this coming Friday.
There will also be a pre-season scrimmage at home against Fayetteville on Monday, August 21st, giving the Bulldogs a definite home field advantage to start the 2017 campaign. The official season opener against Fort Smith Northside (9/1) is followed by a visit to Smith-Robinson Stadium by Fort Smith Southside on September 8th.
The Bulldogs won’t travel until game three on September 15th at Alma, which isn’t much of a road trip at all. In fact, four of their first six regular season games will be played at home. To balance the scales, three of their last four contests are on the road.
According to this year’s Hooten’s Arkansas Football magazine, the Bulldogs are expected to win yet another 6A West conference title and go on to capture their first state championship since 2012, after losing in the title game each of the past two seasons.
While such speculation clearly bolsters the confidence of GHS fans, pre-season hype only goes so far. The truth will be revealed between the lines on Friday nights this fall. So, let’s briefly survey the 2017 schedule and the opposition slated to face the Bulldogs this coming season.
Fort Smith Northside
Returning nine starters from last season (7-3), the 2017 Grizzlies are picked third in the 7A Central by Hooten’s Arkansas Football, which would qualify them as a post-season team. Greenwood won at Northside last year, 33-25, despite the Bulldogs being outscored 17-7 over the final 29 minutes.
Six of Northside’s returning starters are on offense, three on defense, and there’s plenty of team speed to go around on both sides of the ball. The veteran offensive line is strong, but the Bears will have a new quarterback and will be inexperienced on defense as well, especially early in the season.
Fort Smith Southside
It was a down year for Southside in 2016, finishing an uncharacteristic and disappointing 3-7 in their inaugural season as the Mavericks, formerly known as the Rebels. They do return 12 starters this fall, eight of them on defense, and should be improved with a junior-dominated roster.
Still, Hooten’s has Southside picked sixth in the 7A Central, which would put the Mavericks on the bubble as a potential playoff team. Southside has good skill players on offense, but lacks experience on the line. On the defensive side of the ball, the Mavs are solid at linebacker and in the secondary.
Greenwood won last year’s high-scoring contest at Southside, 56-34, pulling away late after the ‘Dogs led 21-14 at halftime. The score may be different, but expect another GHS win at home this season. Entering the 2017 campaign, the Bulldogs have a 10-game winning streak against Class 7A competition.
The season’s first road trip will be the short jaunt to Airedales Stadium on September 15th. The Bulldogs currently own a 12-game win streak over Class 5A Alma, including a solid 35-12 victory in 2016. Head Coach Rick Jones has lost only once (2004) to the archrival Airedales in his 13 seasons at Greenwood.
One of the largest 5A schools in the state, Alma is picked by Hooten’s to win the 5A West league title and battle for a berth in the state championship game against overwhelming favorite Pulaski Academy. The Airedales return nine starters from last season (8-4), six on defense but only three on offense.
However, it’s unlikely that Alma will be able to break the current GHS stranglehold on the rivalry in 2017. The Airedales have good receivers, a solid kicking game, and are experienced at defensive end and linebacker. But they are unproven at quarterback, on the offensive line, and in the defensive secondary.
The first “real” road trip for Greenwood will be the three-hour journey south to Texarkana on September 22nd to face the improving Razorbacks under new Head Coach Barry Norton. It will be the conference opener for both teams. Hooten’s has Texarkana picked fourth in the league this coming season.
In a surprise move, Coach Norton switched teams earlier this year, leaving crosstown Texas High for the Razorbacks after compiling an incredible 152-25-1 record that included a 2002 state title in the Lone Star state. Known as a defensive guru, this season Norton will have five returning starters on defense and six on offense.
It will take some time, but Norton will surely bring needed changes and a big upgrade to the Razorbacks’ program, especially when the school moves down to Class 5A in 2018.
As for this season, talented skill players will help the offense, but a lack of depth on the offensive and defensive lines could hurt them in the 6A West. The Bulldogs won in a rout last year, 55-10.
El Dorado Wildcats
According to Hooten’s, the 6A West conference title may be decided in week two of league play when the Wildcats visit Smith-Robinson Stadium on the last Friday in September. Greenwood won fairly easily at El Dorado last season, 49-21, but the ‘Cats should be much improved in 2017 with 14 starters returning, evenly split on both sides of the ball.
El Dorado (6-6) also battled several key injuries last season, but the tradition-rich Wildcats have won nine state championships overall, third most in state history, and four titles under current Head Coach Scott Reed, who has posted a 93-37 record at the school.
With improved depth overall, a talented quarterback returning after an injury-plagued season, and many experienced linemen and linebackers, the Wildcats could challenge the Bulldogs for the league title. The winner of the September 29th game will clearly have the edge going forward and could run the table against the rest of the league schedule, not to mention presenting a serious threat in the playoffs.
Siloam Springs Panthers
Week six is homecoming for the Bulldogs against the Panthers on the first Friday in October. Siloam Springs had just one win last season and lost big to Greenwood, 42-0, and Hooten’s has picked them last in the 6A West for 2017. The Panthers have only a handful of returning starters, two on offense and four on defense, and have won more than five games just once since 2010.
Head Coach Bryan Ross does have some experience at running back and linebacker, but a lack of big bodies up front puts the Panthers at a critical disadvantage against the other teams in the 6A West. This year’s contest should be another easy win for the Bulldogs, ensuring a happy homecoming for all.
Last December the Cyclones (12-1) pulled a mild upset in beating the Bulldogs for the 6A state title, 37-23. Hooten’s picked Greenwood to win the game, but Head Coach Billy Dawson and his Cyclones outplayed the ‘Dogs, especially in the second half in the rain and cold of Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.
Dawson has now moved on to Fayetteville, and Hooten’s picks Russellville to finish fifth in the 6A West this season under new Head Coach Jeff Weaver, a Greenwood native and former GHS assistant coach. Weaver knows how to win and has enjoyed success in turning around struggling programs at Mena and Little Rock Christian.
The Cyclones lost several key players to graduation, including all-state quarterback Cale Fulsom, the Most Valuable Player in the title game against Greenwood. But the cupboard is not completely bare, with five starters returning on offense and five on defense.
Still, Russellville is light in overall depth and lacking in experienced linemen. On the plus side, the Cyclones do have a few good skill players returning and a strong defensive secondary. Coach Weaver will build a strong program moving forward, but it will take time, and the rivalry between the Bulldogs and Cyclones should be fun for years to come, though the Bulldogs ought to win handily this season.
Brad Harris enters his second season as Benton’s head coach with a lot of momentum. In his first year at the helm Harris led the Panthers to their third straight appearance in the semi-finals of the state playoffs, finishing with an 8-5 record. Their 28 victories over the last three years is one of the best winning stretches in school history.
Benton has eight starters returning, five on offense and three on defense. But they lack experience at quarterback and on defense, though they have some good skill players returning on offense. Hooten’s has Benton finishing third in the conference and sixth overall in Class 6A.
Last season Greenwood hosted Benton and bolted to a 31-7 lead late in the first half en route to a 41-25 win. The Panthers should post another winning record, but don’t appear to be as strong as Greenwood or El Dorado.
The ‘Jackets won their first game in 2016 then lost nine straight to finish last in the 6A West. Lance Parker gets his first chance as a head coach after serving as a successful offensive coordinator at Class 7A Bryant and last season with the 6A state champion Russellville Cyclones. He has his work cut out for him.
Sheridan does have a winning tradition in athletics, capturing state titles in baseball and softball this past spring, and the Yellowjackets do have 10 returning starters coming back, seven of them on offense. But the climb to respectability will be steep, and Hooten’s has them picked seventh in the conference. Greenwood won last year’s meeting, 52-13, and will close out the month of October with another win over the Yellowjackets in 2017.
Lake Hamilton Wolves
The Wolves were easy prey for the Bulldogs last fall, losing 47-10 in the season finale, but did upset Benton to earn a post-season berth. Lake Hamilton finished 2016 at 6-5, dropping their first-round playoff game to Searcy.
But the Wolves are also welcoming their third head coach in three years with the arrival of Tommy Gilleran, a 1988 Lake Hamilton grad who won 106 games in 14 seasons at Class 4A Fountain Lake.
The new coach does have 14 starters coming back, eight on offense and six on defense, so experience is not so much of a problem. The offensive line is also well stocked, but the Wolves are auditioning for a new quarterback from among several candidates. Hooten’s picks the Wolves sixth in the league and 11th overall in Class 6A.
Class 6A Post-season
Looking ahead with cautious optimism, the Bulldogs should enter the 2017 post-season as a number one or two seed, either of which will give them a first-round bye in the 12-team playoff field. But aside from El Dorado, the toughest competition should come from three teams in the 6A East.
The Pine Bluff Zebras have made a habit of reaching the finals and semi-finals of the playoffs in recent years under Head Coach Bobby Bolding, beating Greenwood in the 2013 semi-finals and the 2015 state title game. The Zebras have 12 starters returning from an 8-3 team in 2016, losing in the semi-finals to the Bulldogs, 31-30.
Hooten’s once again picks Pine Bluff to win the 6A East, but ranks them fourth overall in Class 6A behind Greenwood, El Dorado, and Jonesboro, and just ahead of West Memphis. The Zebras have solid experience returning, quality depth, and good overall team speed, but are inexperienced at quarterback.
Jonesboro has 11 returning starters from last year’s 9-2 team that was upset in the first round of the playoffs by Benton. They are good at quarterback and solid on the offensive line, but are inexperienced at receiver and in the defensive secondary.
The Hurricane are picked second in the 6A East by Hooten’s, but oddly enough the magazine has them picked ahead of Pine Bluff in the overall rankings. Greenwood and Jonesboro have never met in football.
Former GHS assistant coach Billy Elmore is beginning his fourth year as Head Coach of the West Memphis Blue Devils, finishing last season at 7-5, upsetting Jonesboro in the regular season and losing to Russellville in the state quarter-finals. Elmore has 11 starters returning, six on offense and five on defense.
Hooten’s touts the team’s overall experience, including a returning senior quarterback, but cites a lack of experience on the offensive line. Hooten’s sees the Blue Devils as the third best team in the 6A East and the fifth best overall in Class 6A. Greenwood and West Memphis have never met on the gridiron.