Jr. Bulldogs looking good for 2017
By Richard White
Three years ago, Shannon Rhea took over as head coach of the Junior Bulldogs during an historic run of victories (18) that eventually stretched to 30 games before ending last season against Fort Smith Chaffin. But the 2016 Jr. ‘Dogs finished 5-4 overall, losing four of their last six games.
“Last season I think we just ran out of steam,” said Coach Rhea during a recent interview. “Once the streak ended we kind of lost our momentum. We just struggled on some things, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort.”
Turning his attention on the 2017 freshman squad, Rhea is confident that his Jr. Bulldogs can and will return to their traditional winning ways. The ninth graders open their season next Thursday at Alma in a non-conference game starting at 7 p.m.
“Last year’s eighth graders didn’t lose a game. We were undefeated,” said the coach. “In fact, they really didn’t lose a game in seventh grade either. I think we might have tied one.
“These guys are competitors,” he continued. “About half of our games last year they had to come back in the fourth quarter [to] win. They don’t give up and they compete. They’ve got a good track record and we’ve got talent. We’re looking forward to the season.
“We do everything they do at the high school,” explained Rhea. “We follow what they do. There are some differences, but we try to keep everything the same.
“This is a good group,” he said of his team. “We’re not blessed with a lot of height, but we’ve got a bunch of little guys that can go. [They] have been practicing well. They’re a pleasure to coach. They come in [every day] with a good attitude, and [the coaches] appreciate that.”
One of the big reasons Rhea is so high on his squad is the return of running back Hunter Wilkinson, who as an eighth grader started for the ninth grade team last fall. “This year he’s still going to be with us, and we’re counting on good things from him.”
There was speculation that Wilkinson might be promoted to provide backup for the varsity Bulldogs, adding depth behind senior Kenny Wood, and that could still happen in-season if the need arises. But his presence on the freshman squad assures the Jr. Bulldogs of a solid backfield.
“We’re going to be fine at running back,” said Rhea. “We have Wilkinson and [Kaden] Franks and [Connor] Marvin, and those guys can run.” All three also play on defense.
“He’s a load to bring down,” said the coach of Wilkinson. “He’s bigger and stronger. He’s not going to put any moves on you, but he runs hard, and so does Caden Franks. I can tell that [Wilkinson] has filled out a little bit. He’s definitely going to help us [at linebacker].”
Who will distribute the ball to those running backs? “We’ve got L.D. Richmond at quarterback again,” said Rhea of last year’s eighth grade signal caller. But the cupboard is also far from bare behind center, says the coach.
“We’ve got guys coming in backing him up. We’ve got Coleton Payton. He’s small, but he probably throws the best ball out of anybody. He really spins it well. We’ve [also] got a move-in (Landry Jureka) from Alma. He’s yet to practice because of an injury, but he was their starting quarterback as an eighth grader.
“We’re kind of anxious to see what he’s got. I looked at some tape of our game with Alma, and he’s a good passer and he can run. So we’ve got three good quarterbacks. We can throw the ball, and we’re going to be pretty good on offense,” said Rhea.
The Junior ‘Dogs also have a bevy of talented receivers to catch those passes. “We’ve got good receivers who run routes and catch the ball well,” said the coach.
Jase Strozier is a wideout, and Jayden Jasna. They both can catch the ball on the outside. They run really good routes and they’ve got a little move about them. They can make you miss in the open field. They’re going to have to play both ways.
“We’ve got Peyton Carter. He’s a tall kid that we threw the ball to on two-point conversions [last year]. He’s got great hands and he runs pretty good routes. He’s a good-looking player. He’s going to have to play both ways also.
“We’ve [also] got Tatum Sadler,” said Rhea. “He’s going to be a two-way player. He’s an all-around good player and can play anywhere you put him. Tyler Moose will be in there. Hunter Sivage is a go-getter.
“These kids compete. They don’t give up,” added the coach. “That’s their strength. Our bunch found a way to come back. For some reason, we were a slow starting team last year, and we’re going to get that corrected. But I thought we were stronger than anybody in the fourth quarter.”
One reason for Greenwood’s recent run of success on the junior high level has been a steady stream of good sized kids on the offensive line, and 2017 is no exception.
“We feel really good about our line,” said Coach Rhea. “We can go two or three-deep with confidence. We’re going to be able to rest some guys and keep them healthy.
“On the o-line right now we’ve got Ely Calvert at left tackle, Beau Asher at left guard, Ethan Cole at center, Easton Erwin at right guard, and Braden Stein at right tackle. Every one of those guys have good size and they can move. They’re going to be a pretty good unit.
“Asher is a move-in from Lavaca and he’s picked up the offense, and we’ve got him starting right now. He’s a pretty aggressive kid and we’re pleased to have him.
“Tayshaun Leader is going to play both offense and defense. He was a starter last year. We’ve got Bryce Barentine, Ty Cowen, Bryson Pettigrew, and Jackson Freeman. Those are our top two units. We’re going to rotate them in and keep them fresh. There won’t be any drop off in the second unit,” said the coach.
On the other side of the ball, Rhea likes his defense as well. “We’ve got guys that like to hit,” he said. “The defensive line is a strength. We’re going to be more aggressive this year – pin our ears back and do a lot more things with them.
Rhea has penciled in starters Erwin at right end, Asher at left end, and Calvert at nose guard, with Leader rotating in as well.
Wilkinson and Pettigrew are at inside linebackers, with Franks and Marvin on the outside in Greenwood’s 3-4 defensive alignment. “Those first four linebackers can run really well. They can go get you,” said Rhea.
As for the defensive secondary, “If we started today we would have Jasna and Sadler at safeties, and Moose and Strozier at the corners, and Hayden Wells would be a corner to provide depth,” said the coach.
One area of concern, not uncommon in junior high, is the kicking game, “That was probably our weakest area last year. We struggled to find kickers [in eighth grade]. We basically went for two every time,” said Rhea.
“We’re going to try Jonathan Lamb at extra points. We’re just looking for somebody to kick it over the bar. He’s also going to handle the kickoff duties along with Luis Morales. [Lamb’s] getting better. We’ll probably lengthen him out pretty soon. He’s wanting to do it, so we’re going to give him a shot.
“Our punter will probably be Richmond, our quarterback. He’s got a strong leg, so we’re not really concerned. It’s nice to have a quarterback that can kick.”
The Junior ‘Dogs held a pre-season scrimmage with Bentonville this past Tuesday. Asked what his staff would be focusing on, Rhea said, “We’ll be looking at the tackling, making sure that we’re lined up right, and get out of it without getting anybody banged up.”
Regarding the River Valley Conference race, the coach said, “It’s going to be a pretty competitive league again. We’ve got to make sure that we are focused and play well.
“Alma is going to be a major player. Chaffin will be good, and Van Buren.” Rhea characterized last year’s champion, Harrison, as a wildcard. “Just going there is going to be tough,” he said.
Indeed, the Jr. Bulldogs have three significant road trips this fall, going to Little Rock Fair and Shiloh Christian in addition to Harrison. The LR Fair and Harrison contests will be early starts to ease the travel burden for the visiting team.
“We were just scrambling,” he said of the schedule that has included an open date for the past couple of seasons. “Nobody really wanted to play us. I’m just glad we’ve got a full schedule [this year].”
The coach was also upbeat about the future of his overall program, including the two seventh grade teams and the eighth grade squad. “We’ve got about 47 ninth graders, or maybe closer to 50,” he said. “We [recently] picked up a kid from Mansfield.”
But the 2017 eighth grade team is blessed with big numbers. “We’ve got probably the biggest group we’ve had with them. We’ve got almost 60 kids. We’re almost out of jerseys.”
Rhea describes the eighth graders as good defensively, but still searching for a reliable offensive line. He also acknowledged the challenge of finding ample playing time for so many bodies.
On the seventh grade level the two teams have about 25 players each and are really well-stocked at a key position. “We’ve got some really good quarterbacks,” he said. “We’re two-deep with both teams. We’re not going to have any trouble throwing the ball with them, and they can run. We’re going to have fun with them. We’ve got a nice [quarterback] in eighth grade too.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Rhea of the upcoming season. “I know we’re ready to play. We’re kind of bored with practicing. We’ve just got to stay healthy, because depth is an issue in some spots.”