Despite the pandemic that still has much of the nation paralyzed, the high school golf season in Arkansas is underway. The Greenwood Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs both finished among the top three teams at a two-day tournament in Mountain Home last week, kicking off what coaches and players hope will be a promising season for both squads.
Head coaches Ronnie Sockey (girls) and Tyler Woods (boys) sat down for a joint interview earlier this week at Greenwood’s Vache Grasse Country Club to discuss the prospects for the 2020 links campaign.
At Mountain Home, the GHS boys placed third overall and #1 among the 5A teams in attendance, while the Lady Bulldogs finished third overall behind second-place Mountain Home and first-place Cabot.
“We didn’t play our best,” admitted Coach Sockey concerning his girls. “We ended up third as a team. Mountain Home beat us by 10 or 12 shots and [Class 6A] Cabot just blew everybody away.
Junior Hallie Jones fired identical 18-hole rounds of 82 over two days to finish fourth overall individually and #1 among 5A girls. Greenwood’s Grace Woody, also a junior, carded a 96 and 103, followed by senior Olivia Walker with a 109 and 96.
“They ought to be contending for a state championship every year,” added Sockey regarding the Lady Bombers. The Mountain Home girls play on a magnificent home course and the local pro is very involved with their program, explained the coach. The GHS girls will compete against the Lady Bombers this season in 5A West conference play.
Little Rock Christian and Beebe left the 5A West, replaced by Mountain Home and Van Buren. They join Greenwood, Greenbrier, Vilonia, Alma, Russellville, and Siloam Springs, though not all those schools have enough girls to field a team, said Sockey.
Among those that do, the GHS head coach expects Mountain Home and Russellville to provide the main competition for his Lady Bulldogs., who finished as state runners-up last season to Hot Springs Lakeside. He also expects Paragould and Jonesboro to field good teams from the eastern side of the state.
Sockey, who also serves as the GHS head softball coach, is beginning his third year as head golf coach after serving one season as an assistant to former head coach Ronnie Williams, who retired. Asked if Williams is still involved in the program, both Sockey and Woods said he can still be seen around Vache Grasse from time to time.
“Not as much this year. He still comes to our tournaments and helps out with fundraising, but with him taking a new job at Trinity, we’re not seeing him as much. But he’s still part of it. He’s been part of it for a long time and really built it to what it is. We can call him at any time. Any time we have a home meet he loves to stop by and talk to the kids,” they both agreed.
Bored with retirement, Williams has returned to his roots at Trinity [Christian] in Fort Smith as boys basketball coach, where he started his teaching career four decades ago. Together, Sockey and Williams led the Lady Bulldogs to their most recent state championship in 2018 with top players Sydney Gamble, Ella Austin, and Jordan Lane.
Austin was the lone senior to depart off last season’s conference championship team, said Sockey, who has nine girls on his roster, a significant increase over the past few years.
“We’ve got one senior, two juniors, and a bunch of new girls, three sophomores and three freshmen,” recited Sockey. “We’ve got nine girls [and] that’s a good number for girls golf. The last two years we’ve had five or six, [so] we’re excited to see the young ones come out. They’re working at it and trying to get better. They know they’re a year or two away from really helping us.
“We’ve got one out of volleyball that’s going to try and play both sports. She’s a freshman. Some were friends with players from last year. It was girls recruiting other girls,” acknowledge Sockey. “[But] they’re having fun and enjoying it, and that’s what we’re out here for.
“We’re excited about this season,” he continued. “We’ve got a lot of girls coming back and some really good newcomers that are young and hitting the ball well. We’re just trying to get some experience for those girls.
“We lost [only] one senior, Ella Austin. She played [four years] and was part of a state championship team two years ago. But we have the capability of winning it this year,” said the confident coach.
“Hallie Jones and Grace Woody are our top two [players] and they are both just juniors. Olivia Walker is our [lone] senior and she is making her first start in our top four girls this year,” he said. “She’s worked hard this summer and went to a swing coach and really improved her game.
“We kind of see her shooting around 90 for us. If she does that, and Grace and Hallie play like they [can], that’s a good round for [us]. [Olivia is] not a big girl, but she’s hitting it with Hallie and Grace off the tee. Getting off the tee box has really improved her game, and being able to hit all her irons a little farther.
“She’s always been a good chipper and putter around the green, but getting there a lot quicker is definitely going to lower her scores,” said her coach. “She had a rough [round] the first day at Mountain Home, but she improved 13 strokes [the second day]. She knows what she’s capable of [doing].
“From Class 5A down we can play four [girls], but count three scores,” explained Sockey. “We’ve got some girls that are going to push each other for that fourth spot. But the biggest thing for the young ones is getting playing experience.
“Right now it would probably be Addison Curtis, a freshman,” said the coach of his fourth player. “[Freshman] Carsyn Holland and [sophomore] Jessica Williams have probably played more golf than the others. [Sophomore] Maggie Leonard can really hit the ball well when she’s got her head down and is swinging good, but she doesn’t have much experience playing golf.” Freshman Laci Cox is also another newcomer for the Lady Bulldogs.
“[Sophomores] Jessica Williams and Maleigha Carney both played last year as freshmen and got some experience, and they are better than they were last year,” acknowledged their coach. “We’ve just got to have them ready next year. Two years from now we’re definitely going to need all of these girls. We’ve got to keep them interested in playing.”
Asked about the strengths and skills of his top two players, Sockey cited their distance off the tee and their overall experience. But as with most high school players, continued improvement and more consistency is needed.
“Hallie and Grace really hit the ball long,” said Sockey, “200-250 yards off the tee box. Hallie has really gotten consistent with her iron play and a lot better at her putting. She’s gotten better year after year. She started playing as a freshman after years of softball, and has really developed her golf swing and worked hard on it. We expect a lot of her in her junior and senior seasons. She’s really good [and] knows she has a chance to play in college if that’s what she wants to do.
“Grace is really good off the tee box [too], added the coach. “She’s working on her iron play right now. She’s shot some even par rounds out here on nine holes. She has the capability of really going low for us and shooting in the 70s if she put 18 holes together.
“If we can have Grace and Hallie [shoot] around 80 for us, and Olivia do what she can, keeping it around 90, that should be good enough to win conference and compete for a state championship. We just want to keep it going and keep getting better,” said Sockey in summing up his team’s chances this season.
“We should have most of our matches done before school even starts this year, and then it’s just getting ready for the conference tournament around the middle of September,” he concluded.
Asked about the precautions required in this era of the coronavirus, both coaches expressed their hope that golf season, short though it is, would not be interrupted by the pandemic.
“We’re just hoping we get to finish this season,” said Coach Woods. “We’re stressing to [the players] that they are going to [wear masks] on the tee box. [But] Golf is a different sport than football or basketball. You’re not in close contact,” added Sockey.
At Mountain Home, Wood’s GHS boys placed third overall, led by senior Brady Fein’s two rounds of 78 and 82. His performance put Fein in the top ten overall and made him the #1 5A player in attendance. He was followed by Greenwood’s Ethan Clark (84,85), Chris Daggs (87,87), Hayden Weaver (93,88), and Jake Baxley (103,108).
Woods, who also leads the Bulldogs’ boy’s varsity soccer program, is entering his second season as head golf coach. “It was my first coaching [job] for golf, but I’ve always admired [the sport] and regretted not playing it in high school,” he said. “But it’s been awesome to be around the players and see high school golf in Arkansas. The Greenwood golf program has been good for a long time, so I’m just trying to get the kids to the first tee box and not get in the way.”
Asked what lessons he gleaned from last season, Woods was quick to give credit to his two colleagues and mentors. “Just learning the logistics and scheduling and how to go about practices. I’ve learned a lot from Coach Sockey and Coach Williams. They’ve got a big book full of drills we can do. It’s [also] been cool to see a bunch of different courses in Arkansas. I’m a huge fan and I want the sport to grow as much as it can in Greenwood and the state of Arkansas,” he said.
“[Last year] our boys finished second in conference behind Little Rock Christian, and we didn’t play our best, but finished fourth in state. We had two seniors who graduated, Landon Tuck and Cade Schrum. Out of our top five, they were our four and five bags, so we return our top three players, who were all juniors last year,” continued Woods.
“Ethan Clark, Brady Fein, and Hayden Weaver, [but] don’t ask me what [rank] they are, because it depends on the day. They are all right there competing with each other. As of the moment, Brady Fein is probably our best player. But it could be Ethan or Hayden on a different day,” said Woods.
“[And] we’ve got four or five guys contending for our fourth and fifth spots. We’ve got a new player, [Jake Baxley], a junior who’s never played up until now. But he actually qualified to be one of our top guys at Mountain Home last week. He was a basketball and baseball guy before. He’s been a member out here [Vache Grasse], and I’ve asked him a hundred times to play, and he finally agreed. He’s picking it up and he’s learning a lot.
“[Junior] Chris Daggs is one that’s [reached] our top five,” added Woods. “Jake Spoon is another junior fighting for a spot. We’ve got a senior, Avery Cole, who is right in contention. Deacon Drennan is a junior and Riley Wann is a senior, and it’s his first year out. We [also] have Raline Jordan and Landry Gamble, both freshman.
“We’ve got 11 [names] on the boy’s roster. We’ve got some fighting for the top spot and some that are developing. We don’t really have any sophomores. I’m going to have to start recruiting a little bit,” said the coach with a smile.
Asked to sum up the traits of his top three players, Woods said, “Brady is a lefty who can hit the ball a mile. He’s got every shot in the bag he needs. For him, it’s all mental. If he can just keep his mental game on point, he’s going to play well. At Mountain Home he shot a 78 and 82, so he played pretty well up there. I was impressed with him.
“Hayden started a little slow last year, but the more he played the better he got and he ended up being our #1 guy at the very end. He just needs to sharpen his swing a little and knock the rust off. Once he figures out what his swing is going to be on the drive, the rest of his game falls in place,” said his coach.
“Ethan is a very analytical player. He thinks about every shot really hard. He’s a really good player [and] probably our best putter. He’s really good at reading greens. He’s really put the time in this summer to work hard and get better. There’s hardly a day you can come on the course and not see Ethan playing since school has been out.
“I wish he wouldn’t change his swing as much as he does. He’s on and off, but last season he was playing pretty well. I think this season he’s going to be even better because of maturity. All three of them are more mature. They can have a bad hole and put it behind them better than in the past,” added Woods.
“You can tell how good [GHS] golf has been by looking at the past medalists, runners-up, and all-state players. We’ve had a ton of great players. Evan Griffith a couple years ago was the overall state medalist,” recalled Woods. “They grew up in [the] First Tee [program], but when First Tee went away, some kids [lost opportunities] to play. Ben Geren [in Fort Smith] is taking over First Tee, so that will help with some of the younger kids,” added Coach Sockey.
Both coaches are high on their team’s prospects this season. “We play our conference meet at Cypress Creek at Cabot this year. Vilonia is hosting. I think it’s on September 21st [and] state is two weeks [later],” said Woods. He expects Mountain Home to provide the most competition for the Bulldogs on league play, and possibly on the state level [as well].
“Mountain Home is pretty salty,” he said after seeing the Bombers on their home course a week earlier. “It’s going to be pretty close between us and Mountain Home this year,” he said of the conference race.
“At the state level there are a few different teams,” reciting Hot Springs Lakeside, Jonesboro, Little Rock Christian, and Mountain Home. “With state only being one day, if we have two guys go out and have a great round, like they are capable of doing, that gives us a shot. Just being one day helps us out,” said Woods.