AD Young talks spring football, move-ins, new hires

AD Young talks spring football, move-ins, new hires

Chris Young has been busy in his first year as both head football coach and athletic director. But it’s also been a very successful year with four more state championships added to the ever-expanding trophy case of the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs. Titles won in girls’ cross country, football, cheer, and girls’ basketball increased Greenwood’s total to around 60 state championships, most of which have been won since the year 2000. Coach Young sat down with the Dog Pound recently for a wide-ranging interview about spring football, a surprising influx of new players, and the hiring of three new coaches.

Asked about his first year as both head football coach and athletic director, Young said of himself and his staff, “We’re doing great. I think the key is that I’ve got great help on both sides of my duties. My football staff is phenomenal. Coach [Jason] Gill, our defensive coordinator, has taken a lot of the responsibility off me and allowed me to be gone some. He does a phenomenal job. He’s been here a long time and he’s been a head coach, so he understands. Fortunately, I’ve got the best football staff in Arkansas, and those guys are all willing and able to pick up some extra duties.

“On the athletic department side, it starts with our athletic secretary, Kim Hobbs, who we got from Fort Smith. She keeps everything running and she is phenomenal. Then we have as assistant ADs, Coach [Brandon] Brewer, Coach [Tyler] Woods, and [assistant high school principal Chase] Meyers. They’ve taken a lot of that stuff off me. Having good people around me has allowed me to be successful,” added Young.

Last December, Young led his Bulldogs to their fourth consecutive state final appearance since taking over as head coach in 2020, going 14-0 that season, winning his first title as head coach and the school’s tenth gridiron championship overall. The Bulldogs lost in the finals in 2021 and 2022 before winning again in 2023, going 13-0. The 2024 Bulldogs return a powerful, experienced offense, led by superstar quarterback Kane Archer, but are rebuilding a defense decimated by graduation.

The annual Blue-White Spring game was held at Smith-Robinson Stadium on Tuesday, May 28th, and was a success, according to the Bulldogs’ head coach. “I was happy with the results,” said the son of legendary Fort Smith Northside head coach Joe Fred Young. “Offensively and defensively, we were solid. Obviously, we can get better in a lot of areas; but overall, I was very pleased. Number one, you want to get out of spring ball with no [serious] injuries, and we were able to do that. We had a couple of ankles, but nothing major, so we’re healthy as a team. There is a lot of competition with a lot of positions open, and any time you have competition it makes everybody better.”

The coach was quick to acknowledge his team’s returning experience and offensive firepower. “It starts at quarterback and wide receiver and a lot of skill kids back, and we’re really excited about our offensive line. We’ve got six guys right now that we feel are full-time starters, so we have some depth, plus we have some young offensive linemen we’re excited about too. Three [of the six] are returning starters, but we had one transfer in from Fort Smith Northside that started at tackle for them. He’s been an outstanding addition. He’s very strong. That’s four starters, then we have Landon Billy, who started about half our games last year, and Akira Fujibayashi is a backup at three different spots. We feel really good about our offensive line.”

As proof of Greenwood’s expected offensive dominance this fall, this past Thursday the Bulldogs competed in one of several 7-on-7 passing competitions planned for the pre-season, this one at Russellville. They handily defeated every one of their eight foes, including an impressive 51-10 victory over Class 7A Cabot in the championship round.

As alluded to by the head coach, the 2024 squad will be bolstered by the addition of not just one, but five new players transferring into the district this spring. At least two of those players profile as immediate offensive starters at Greenwood, an offense with six starters already in the fold after outscoring their 2023 opponents by an average of 34.5 points per game. It’s clear the high-powered Bulldogs won’t be punting the football much this fall.

The first transfer to arrive was junior receiver Champ Davis (5’10”, 185), moving to South Sebastian County from Nebraska, where he was considered one of the state’s top up-and-coming pass catchers. He arrived in time to take part in spring drills and seemed to live up to his reputation, said Young. “Champ Davis is a great wide receiver. He runs good routes, catches the ball well, and has some speed.”

Another exciting move-in is Fort Smith Northside offensive lineman Eddy Costelo (6’, 270), a 2023 starter for the Grizzlies as a junior. Besides Davis and Costelo, three others are making the move to Titletown, including Van Buren’s Jadyn Johnson (5’11”, 195), a junior starter for the Pointers last season at receiver. Two players from Fort Smith Southside are transferring to Greenwood as well, including sophomore Terry McGinister (6’3”, 175), listed as a running back or defensive back, and junior Maddox Mccalip (5’9”, 150), also listed as a running back.

While the coaching staff hasn’t had enough time to properly evaluate all these new players yet, Young was very high on their character and potential to help the Bulldogs program. “They are great young men,” said the coach, “the ones we’ve met and have been in the program a couple months. They’re the kind of kids you want moving into your program. They work hard, have great attitudes, get along well with their teammates, and they’re good players. They all have an opportunity to play for us this year. You don’t know [for sure] until they get out [on the field]. But parents want their kids to go to school in Greenwood. It’s a community that supports all their kids in academics and athletics. It’s a great place to raise kids and go to school.”

The Bulldogs are loaded at quarterback with Archer as the starter. The MVP in the state title game, the junior has already received numerous big time offers from colleges all over the country. He is backed up by junior Cooper Goodwin and sophomore Brayden Brewer, both very capable players. Goodwin got considerable playing time in mop up duty last season and started in Greenwood’s 49-21 victory at Van Buren last September when Archer was injured.

Another embarrassment of riches exists at the receiver position. The Bulldogs have enough quality pass catchers to fill two rosters. Returning senior stars Grant Karnes and Isaiah Arrington will create big problems for opposing defenses with their speed, route running skills, and great hands. Champ Davis shined during spring drills and fellow move-in Jadyn Johnson will help as well. Others at receiver include seniors Scott Holland, Hudson Meeker, junior Cooper Bland, and a host of sophomores.

The only question mark on offense is at the running back position with the graduation of Brayden Davis, who rushed for over 1,500 yards last season. “We’ve got several candidates [at RB], but that’s obviously the spot we’re less experienced in,” said the coach. “Wesley Raggio and Deacon Cameron are both juniors, then we have a sophomore-to-be, Mario Dunbar. Right now, those three guys are battling for that position.”

Raggio had some nice moments as a sophomore, mostly late in games with the victory already secured. He is quick and fast but the smallest of the three backs. Deacon is a bigger back at 185 pounds and sophomore Mario Dunbar, who toted the rock well for the Junior Bulldogs last season, has both quickness and strength but is younger and lacks varsity experience. Coach Young is hoping one of those three will emerge as the favorite, but he is prepared to use a committee of running backs if necessary or add to the mix by employing some of his extra receivers in the offensive backfield. The two recent move-ins from Fort Smith will also add to the depth at the position.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be one guy, but that’s certainly a position there we want to see some guys step up. Hopefully, someone will separate themselves, but if we have to play three guys, we will. We’ll probably also do some five receiver sets without a running back in the game, so we have some options,” said the coach.

However, the real challenge is on the other side of the ball for defensive coordinator Jason Gill and his staff. The Bulldogs have just three starters returning from last fall’s championship season, so there are a lot of holes to fill. But Coach Young liked what he saw from his defense in the spring game and expects they will continue to get better over the summer and through August drills before the season opener at Bentonville-West on August 30th.

“We’ve got three full-time starters returning and a couple other guys that played a little bit,” said Young. “But several of our guys will be seniors who have been in our program for six years now. Guys like Kaylor Jasna [secondary], Cash Owenby [safety], and Paul Brixey [linebacker] aren’t returning starters, but they’ve been in our program and have developed and are ready to have good years for us.”

Of course, one of the returning defensive starters is senior Cash Archer (6’1”, 220), the older sibling of QB Kane Archer. A standout defensive end the last two years, the elder brother will move to inside linebacker for his senior season but will also be used on occasion as an outside pass rusher as in the past, paired with junior Cody Johnson (6’4”, 230).

“He’s playing mostly linebacker right now, but he’ll come down on the line sometimes too. It’s kind of a hybrid deal. He’s been really good in the spring. He can make plays sideline to sideline, but he’s also a very good pass rusher,” said Young. Like his younger brother, Cash Archer also has college offers on the table, including one from Arkansas State University, among others. Seniors Zack Zitzmann [safety] and Zach Edwards [linebacker] also return as defensive starters.

“Up front we think we have a chance to be pretty good,” added the coach. “Cody Johnson is a young, athletic defensive end who can help, paired with Archer on the outside. Mark Garretson is a [senior] noseguard who had a good spring. He’s going to be a good player. Our linebackers we feel good about. With Jasna and Zitzmann we also feel good about safety. The biggest question mark is at cornerback. We need some guys to step up. Isaiah Arrington will play some corner, and Grant Karnes can play corner, but we really need two guys to step up and take those positions.”

On special teams, senior kicker Bodie Steinfeldt is gone along with punter Landon Nelms, but Young is sure others will step up to fill those roles. The Bulldogs used several kickers and punters during the spring game, including senior Hudson Meeker, junior Laydn Cassanova, and sophomore Landon Franklin. A two-sport athlete in football and soccer, Meeker booted a field goal of over 30 yards and has a strong leg.

“Hudson Meeker is our kicker right now,” said Young. “But that doesn’t mean that sophomore Landon Franklin won’t help us some. Hudson has a really strong leg. He kicked a long field goal in the spring game, and I can see him kicking balls into the end zone on kickoffs by the end of the season. He’s got good leg whip and strength. He just doesn’t have as much experience. I believe he will continue to improve throughout the year like he has this spring.”

New coaching hires

The Greenwood AD also recently hired two new assistant football coaches and a new head coach for the girls’ basketball program. Longtime defensive assistant Steven Thessing took another coaching job in Northwest Arkansas and has been replaced by Pearcy Arnold, an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks, according to Young. Arnold previously coached at Fort Smith Southside before becoming part of Bryant’s program during the Hornets’ dynasty in the early 2020s. He will coach the safety position for the Bulldogs.

“Coach Arnold is coming from Bryant, and we’re excited about him,” said the Greenwood AD and head football coach. “He was at Fort Smith for a couple years and at Bryant, which is a great program. He’s a young coach with a lot of energy. The kids are excited about him. They like his energy and personality and I think he’s going to be a great addition to our coaching staff. The more I called around the better things I heard about him, so I reached out to him and there was mutual interest. It’s good to have a young guy on staff that relates to the kids a little bit differently, so I think he will really help us.”

Junior high assistant coach Eric Daniel has also moved on to Benton Junior High to be closer to his mom and family and has been replaced by Brandon Godfrey, who was the defensive coordinator at Rison High School. “He married a Greenwood girl and they are coming back. We’re excited about him. He will be our defensive coordinator on the junior high staff,” said Young.

But the biggest hire of all was James Halitzka to take over as head coach for the Lady Bulldogs basketball program after the retirement of the legendary Clay Reeves, winner of 11 state championships, the last eight at Greenwood, including four of the last five and three straight. Halitzka comes to Greenwood from tiny Bergman High School, located about 10 miles northeast of Harrison, Arkansas. But the Class 3A Lady Panthers won two state titles under Halitzka, including this past season, and the new coach brings with him a daughter who started for that team as a freshman.

“It caught us by complete surprise,” admitted Young, referring to the sudden retirement of Coach Reeves. “Obviously, he’s [coached] for a long time, and when you’ve won eight state championships [at Greenwood], there’s not a whole lot else you can do to prove yourself. He’s had a tremendous career and done a lot of good things for our school district and the girls’ basketball program. I’m happy for him and his wife. They like to go on trips and go to concerts and enjoy each other. It’s just time for him to focus on himself and his family. He wants to go and do other things.”

Regarding Coach Halitzka, Young said, “He’s coming from a smaller school [Bergman], but they beat Fort Smith Northside a couple years ago when [Northside] had a great program, so it’s a big-time basketball school with a rich tradition. I think he’s been there 10 years and the last four years they’ve been in the final four [in Class 3A] and won two state championships. He has an impressive resume. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything like it. I think in 2022 his fifth through twelfth grade teams went 94-0. His high school team also had a 56-game winning streak at some point.

“And the most exciting thing about him is that he will be involved in our program all the way from little league up through high school, and I think that’s important. That’s going to really pay off down the road. He’s also a big weight room off-season coach. He reached out to us, but we made some calls, and he was on everybody’s list [of the best coaches], including Coach Reeves’,” explained Young.

Facilities upgrades

Not a lot is going on this summer or planned for the next school year regarding improvements to the facilities at Greenwood High School. The most notable change is the ongoing construction taking place between the softball field and the tennis courts. The multi-purpose building will house locker rooms for both sports plus additional storage.

“We’re excited about that,” said the coach. “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve not had a locker room facility for girls softball or our tennis program. So the [administration] and school board allowed us to build them a locker room facility.”

The AD also mentioned some changes to the interior of the all-purpose indoor facility also known as the GMAC. “We’re going to redo the football graphics at the indoor facility on the [interior] walls and the doors on the outside.” The GMAC building is used by multiple sports throughout the year whenever bad weather forces them to practice indoors.

2024 Schedule

“Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian are moving up to 7A,” said the coach of the state’s top two private schools. “We enjoyed playing those guys. We played LR Christian three times in two yeas and were 2-1 against them, and we played PA four times in two years and were 3-1 against them. They were all competitive games, and we like playing good football programs.

“Now we’re getting a Shiloh Christian team that’s been to the state finals several years in a row. They are ultra-competitive. They have a really good coaching staff. Their head coach was at Stillwater (OK) when we played there a couple years ago. I expect them to have a very good team. And Fort Smith Southside is dropping from 7A to 6A. They’re going to have good numbers. They have big, physical linemen and they will present a challenge. They will be tough for our kids to play against. We lost two good teams, but we are gaining two good teams.”

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Coach Halitzka a near carbon copy of retired legend
AD Young talks spring football, move-ins, new hires
GHS boys battle their way into soccer playoffs; Lady Bulldogs close out their regular season
GHS girls softball season ends in 5A quarterfinals
Diamond Dogs falter down the stretch; miss playoffs
Lady Bulldogs finish 5A West conference play unbeaten; state playoffs up next as a #1 seed