For the fourth straight year the Greenwood Bulldogs (11-1) have earned a berth in the Class 6A state title game at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. This year’s contest will be played next Saturday, December 1st starting at 12 noon. The opponent will be the Benton Panthers (10-2), 30-17 winners over previously unbeaten West Memphis (11-1) in Friday’s other semi-final.
Winners of 11 consecutive games, the ‘Dogs punched their ticket to the title bout Friday night with a workmanlike 31-10 victory over visiting Sylvan Hills (5-8). The Bears had been the surprise team in the 6A playoffs, notching two upset road victories over Russellville and Marion, despite having a losing record and barely qualifying for the post-season. They played hard, but their luck ran out against Greenwood.
Saturday’s championship game foe is a familiar one, since both the Bulldogs and Panthers inhabit the same conference, the 6A West, finishing first and second in the league, respectively. One of Benton’s two losses came at the hands of Greenwood, a 62-33 whipping on October 19th at Smith-Robinson Stadium.
The Bulldogs have been in the state title game each of the last four seasons dating back to 2015. They lost that year to Pine Bluff, 28-21, then fell again in 2016 to Russellville, 37-23. Last December Greenwood easily defeated Pine Bluff, 52-17, and should be favored to win again next Saturday.
Amazingly, this will be the Bulldogs’ 11th trip to the finals in the 15 years that Rick Jones has been their head coach. It’s also Greenwood’s 13th appearance in the title game since 1996, the most by any school since the start of the modern playoff system in 1968.
Ronnie Peacock was the head coach in 1996 and 2000 when the ‘Dogs reached the finals for the first two times in school history, winning their first championship in 2000. Greenwood High School now has eight state gridiron titles to its credit since 2000.
The weather for Friday’s state semi-final contest wasn’t bad for football, with the temperature hovering in the upper 40s for most of the game. The air was damp, but not too uncomfortable, and a good home crowd turned out for a game the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest travel holiday of the year.
The Bulldogs won the pre-game coin toss and elected to kick to start the game. As usual, Grant Ennis put the ball in the end zone, forcing the Bears to start from their own 20, something they did throughout the game. But on their opening drive, they managed a trio of first downs and drained over 6½ minutes off the clock. The GHS defense finally stopped them on downs at the home 33-yard-line.
But the Greenwood offense was not exactly firing on all cylinders and sputtered for much of the first half. The ‘Dogs drove to the Sylvan Hills’ 20 in seven plays, the biggest of which were three passes from Peyton Holt to Luke Leonard for 31 yards. Lazaro Angel also caught a pass for eight yards and Hunter Wilkinson ran three times for eight yards.
But after reaching the 20, Holt threw three times unsuccessfully, bringing Ennis onto the field to attempt a 37-yard field goal, which he drilled for a 3-0 GHS lead with 3:09 showing on the clock. The state’s all-time career scoring leader (as a kicker) then booted another kickoff into the end zone.
The game transitioned into the second quarter on the Bears’ next possession, which ended with a punt to the Greenwood 14. But two plays later a pass completion turned into a fumble, scooped up and returned down the visitors’ sideline for a touchdown by Amaad Yancy. The scoring play covered just over 30 yards. The extra point put Sylvan Hills on top, 7-3 (9:43).
Trailing for only the second time this season since their opening loss at Fort Smith Northside, the Bulldogs continued to search for offensive success, but had to kick it away on their next possession. Yet the constant this season has been the GHS defense, shutting out its last two opponents, and it quickly forced another Bears’ punt. Greenwood took over at its own 32 and drove for its second score, though not a touchdown.
Holt ran for 11 yards on first down, then threw to Treyton Dawson for 35 yards at the visitors’ 22. Marc Jones and Hunter Wilkinson combined for two carries to the 11, moving the sticks again before a penalty put the ball at the 16. Three snaps later, facing fourth down at the six, Ennis made the score 7-6 with his second field goal, this one from 23 yards out (3:59).
On the next series it was the Bears’ turn to cough up the football. Greenwood linebacker Travis Cox recovered the loose pigskin at the Sylvan Hills’ 25, setting up the ‘Dogs first touchdown just three plays later. Holt passed to Leonard to the 12, then Jones ran to the five. A penalty moved the ball to the three, and Wilkinson scored up the middle on the next snap. The kick made it 13-7 (2:24).
That was all the scoring for the first half, but the third quarter began with an odd play. The Bears attempted an onside kick, but the ball was pooched up in the air instead of bouncing along the ground. Greenwood’s Garrett Newman called for a fair catch, but was hit by a Sylvan Hills’ player, drawing a flag for interference, giving the Bulldogs the football at the visitors’ 43.
But despite the great field position, the GHS offense was unable to convert its good fortune into points and Jackson Stewart punted the ball to the Sylvan Hills’ 8-yard-line on the roll. Then once again the defense came up big, forcing a quick three-and-out and another Bears’ punt, fair caught at the visitors’ 40-yard-line.
This time the home offense made the Bears pay. A double reverse to Luke Leonard on first down reached the 29 before Wilkinson ran to the 26 and Jones to the 24. Two plays later Holt connected with Lazaro Angel in the middle of the end zone for the ‘Dogs’ second touchdown, a 24-yard strike.
But Ennis stayed on the sideline as Greenwood lined up for a two-point conversion. Holt scrambled to his right to buy some time and draw the defense in his direction, then threw back left to a wide-open Isaiah Belue in the end zone, making it a 14-point game at 21-7 (7:24).
Sylvan Hills didn’t go down without a fight, however. The Bears got a big run of 43 yards from quarterback Nate Floyd and eventually scored on a long field goal (45 yards) by kicker Tito Mendoza, temporarily keeping the visitors in the game, down by 11 points with 4:15 left in the third quarter.
But that was all the scoring for the Bears, while Greenwood scored twice more to put the game away. On their opening drive of the fourth quarter the Bulldogs got a 35-yard kick by Ennis, making it 24-10 (10:30). The possession was set up nicely by another GHS defensive stand, giving the offense the ball at the Sylvan Hills’ 37 after a fourth down QB sack.
Trailing late and forced to gamble on fourth down, the Bears were stopped again at the Greenwood 33. A penalty moved the ball to the 38, then Holt (3) and Jones (13,18) combined for three runs covering 34 yards to the visitors’ 28.
On the next play the elusive Holt kept the ball up the middle before cutting to his right and finding room down the Bears’ sideline all the way to the end zone, bouncing off a would-be tackler at the 5-yard-line. The kick by Ennis made the final score 31-10.
The final 6:21 featured a pair of turnovers, an interception by Greenwood’s Jayden Martin and a lost fumble by the Bulldogs. But the defense remained solid and the Bears never threatened to score as time expired. With the sounding of the final horn the home team and their fans celebrated the win and a chance to play for another state title.
Statistically, neither team impressed with its offensive numbers. Sylvan Hills was held to 259 total yards by the GHS defense, while the Bulldogs gained 309 yards, unofficially. Peyton Holt completed 12 of 19 passes for 139 yards, while Marc Jones rushed 11 times for 76 yards.
After the game, Head Coach Rick Jones was all smiles and reminded his players how fortunate they were and how far they had come since their season-opening loss at Northside. He also gave them a day off as a reward, since the championship game is on Saturday. He then talked to the media.
Asked about the continued fine play of his defense, Jones agreed it was a great effort. “It really was,” he said. “They gave up [just] three points, essentially. Our defense answered every call, because our offense wasn’t as sharp as we needed to be. The last three games I’d say [the defense] have been pretty good.”
Jones was also very complimentary of the competition. “Sylvan Hills did a great job,” he said. “They’re athletic. They’re explosive. Their quarterback is a very physical guy. They get off blocks [well] and they do a good job tackling. They did a really nice job. They had a great game plan.
“That’s the most [rushing] yards we’ve given up in a long time. It was [also] the first time we’ve been behind in a while, and I think that was good for us, because it’s not going to be easy next week, and it wasn’t easy tonight. It wasn’t easy until there were all zeros on the clock. We had to battle to the end, and I think that will serve us well next week.”
Asked about the three field goals, Jones said of his senior kicker, “Grant [Ennis] did an awesome job. I did not want to kick field goals, but it was very, very important.”
The coach also responded to a question about senior running back Marc Jones. “Marc’s a great zone runner. He does a good job finding holes. That’s the thing he does best. He has a knack for being patient and finding the hole. Hunter [Wilkinson] wasn’t 100% tonight. He had an [injury] issue last week and he wasn’t quite ready to go. We need to get all our guys on deck for next week.
“We did not take care of the football very well, offensively,” added Jones. “We sputtered a little bit. We were not as smooth as we wanted to be. We did not make an easy yard. We had to earn everything.”
He also talked about the progress his team has made, winning 11 consecutive games since losing their season opener. “We’ve come a long way. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of,” he said. “This is a hard-working group of kids. They really care, and they go out every day and try to get better.
“[And] we have to get a whole lot better before next [Saturday], that’s for sure. We’ve got to take care of the football better and be more efficient in pass protection and more physical at the point of attack offensively. It’s going to be a challenge. We’ve done this thing before and it’s not going to be easy.”