The 2021 season came to a bittersweet end for the Diamond ‘Dogs a week ago last Saturday when they lost in the semi-finals of the 5A state baseball tournament played at Jonesboro. The Bulldogs fell to the Van Buren Pointers, 6-2, in a game that was tied at 2-2 until the bottom of the sixth inning.
Still, in the aftermath of last year’s aborted season, and in their first full season under Head Coach Chad Mercado, the Bulldogs reached 20 victories and continued the long tradition of winning baseball at Greenwood High School. And while they lost nine seniors to graduation – many of them starters – they have a solid nucleus of youngsters returning next season, including players like Luke Brewer, Bryce Morgan, Matt Munday, Dylan Strozier, Harrison Adams, Hunter Houston, Aiden Kennon, Austin Mitchell, and Dawson Holt, among others. So the future remains bright.
Departing seniors include Caden Brown, Reed Carroll, Ethan Clark, Andrew Elliott, Chance Eoff, Landry Jurecka, Coleton Payton, Hayden Weaver, and Tatum Sadler. Despite losing their junior year of competition to Covid-19, these nine young men have shown great leadership, dedication, character, and a strong work ethic. A few of them will continue their playing careers in college, but all of them can be proud of their time as Greenwood Bulldogs.
The Pointers (27-7) scored four times in the bottom of the sixth inning to beat the Bulldogs (20-11), then went on to defeat Jonesboro for the state title, the first baseball championship in the school’s history. Both Greenwood and Van Buren are from the 5A West conference. Van Buren also won the 5A state soccer title by beating Russellville, also from the 5A West.
Both head coaches, Greenwood’s Mercado and Van Buren’s Luke Weatherford, planned ahead by pulling their best starting pitchers after getting leads in their first-round games on Thursday, thus allowing them to return to the mound two days later. The two hurlers in question were Greenwood’s Landry Jurecka and Van Buren’s Connor Johnson.
Both Johnson and Jurecka started and won their opening round games – Johnson beating Lake Hamilton, 7-2, and Jurecka downing Sheridan, 11-3. Johnson threw just 60 pitches before Weatherford pulled him in the fourth inning. Likewise, Jurecka threw 59 pitches before Mercado replaced him after four frames.
Both senior pitchers are headed to Division I college baseball next season. Johnson will toil for the University of Central Arkansas while Jurecka will be playing at Kansas State. In their first meeting earlier this season, Johnson and his Pointers defeated Jurecka and the Diamond ‘Dogs, 2-0.
In the semi-finals, Van Buren plated two runs in the first inning on two singles and a double off Jurecka, one of them by Johnson. But the GHS starter settled in after that and kept the Pointers’ bats quiet through five innings before he was pulled after 79 pitches. He allowed just the two early runs on five hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.
The 2-0 score stood up until the top of the sixth inning when Greenwood’s Caden Brown tied the game with a clutch two-out two-run blast that stayed fair just inside the left-field foul pole. Fellow senior Chance Eoff had doubled to start the inning, setting up Brown’s dramatic homer. But whatever momentum the Diamond ‘Dogs gained faded quickly in the bottom half of the frame.
With Austin Mitchell taking over on the hill for Jurecka, Van Buren’s Johnson drew a walk on four pitches, putting the lead run at first base with no outs. Matt Munday then replaced Mitchell, but surrendered consecutive singles to load the bases before the Pointers scored on a wild pitch to retake the lead, 3-2. But they weren’t done. Van Buren then tacked on an RBI single and a two-RBI double to put the game away.
Johnson returned to the mound in the top of the seventh and finished off the Diamond ‘Dogs with his 13th strikeout and two pop outs. The Van Buren hurler threw 101 pitches in the game, 67 of them for strikes. He also fanned five Greenwood hitters in a row at one point, including striking out the side in the second inning.
Offensively, the Bulldogs had just four hits in the contest and were retired in order in four of their seven at bats. Chance Eoff had two of the four knocks to go along with Brown’s homer and a single by Bryce Morgan. Both teams played flawless defense and Johnson gave just one walk to keep the bases clear, limiting Greenwood’s scoring opportunities. Johnson finished his senior season unbeaten (13-0) and went on to post a four-hit complete game victory for the state championship, beating Jonesboro 12-1.
The day before facing Van Buren, the Diamond ‘Dogs were the visiting team in the state quarterfinals against the Batesville Pioneers, in what turned out to be a wild and controversial finish. Thankfully, Greenwood hung on for the 5-4 victory, advancing to the next round against Van Buren.
Senior Reed Carroll started the game for Greenwood and earned the pitching victory, getting one out of relief help from Chance Eoff in a chaotic seventh inning. Reed’s numbers took a beating in the seventh and his final stat line included seven hits, three walks, four runs, and seven strikeouts over 6.2 innings of work.
Greenwood plated single runs in the first and third innings and led 2-0 until Batesville tied the score in the bottom of the fifth. A walk to Reed Carroll was followed by a passed ball and an RBI double by Caden Brown in the opening frame. In the third, Carroll reached on an error, advanced to second on a balk, then scored on a double by Matt Munday.
The Bulldogs broke the 2-2 tie in the top of the seventh on a bases-loaded walk to sophomore Hunter Houston, scoring junior Luke Brewer. They added two more runs when senior Andrew Elliott was struck by a pitch, forcing home a run, followed by an RBI single from junior Dylan Strozier. The inning began with Reed Carroll reaching base once again, this time on a single. Caden Brown followed suit ahead of a walk to Munday to fill the bases with Bulldogs.
The Pioneers then scored two runs of their own in the bottom of the seventh with only one hit. The two-out rally featured three walks and a hit batter that loaded the bases and forced in two runs. In the midst of the chaos, Carroll was relieved by Chance Eoff, who worked the final Batesville hitter to a perilous 3-2 count with the tying run at third base. But just as the GHS lefty was going into his windup, the batter raised his hand to call time and promptly stepped out of the batter’s box.
The problem was that he failed to wait for the home plate umpire to grant his request. So, even though the pitch was clearly high and outside, the batter was ruled out for leaving the batter’s box without permission, ending the scoring threat and the game in Greenwood’s favor, much to the dismay of the Batesville faithful, including their players and coaching staff.
The Diamond ‘Dogs were surely fortunate to escape with the controversial 5-4 win after nearly giving away the victory in the seventh inning. They did out-hit Batesville by a narrow 8-7 margin and took advantage of three Pioneer errors to score two unearned runs. Greenwood’s defense was perfect on the day.
Caden Brown and Reed Carroll had two hits each, accounting for half of Greenwood’s total. Brown had a single, double, and an RBI, while Carroll had a pair of singles and a walk. The other hits were distributed among Dylan Strozier, Matt Munday, Andrew Elliott, and Bryce Morgan. Elliott, Strozier, Munday, and Harrison Adams each had one run batted in.
As the #4 seed from the 5A West, Greenwood’s opening round draw appeared to be a mismatch against #1 seed Sheridan. The Yellowjackets have a long history of winning baseball and should have been heavily favored. But the games aren’t played on paper, and the Bulldogs took care of business early and often in a dominating 11-3 victory behind starting pitcher Landry Jurecka. Relievers Austin Mitchell, Coleton Payton, and Hunter Houston backed him up.
The Bulldogs scored twice in the top of the first, four times in the third, twice more in the fourth, once in the fifth, and plated two more runs for good measure in the seventh. The ‘Jackets didn’t score until the fifth, then added two final runs in their last at bat, but it was too little too late to avoid the upset loss.
As Greenwood’s ace, Jurecka locked down the Sheridan bats through four innings, allowing just three hits, no walks, and no runs with six strikeouts. Leading 8-0, Coach Mercado had the confidence to remove his starter after 59 pitches and save his bullets for the semi-finals two days later. Austin Mitchell was charged with Sheridan’s run in the fifth and Coleton Payton gave up the two runs in the seventh. Hunter Houston did not allow a run and recorded the final two outs.
At the plate, the Diamond ‘Dogs had eight hits and took advantage of five walks and four Sheridan errors, though nine of Greenwood’s 11 runs were earned. Chance Eoff, Matt Munday, and Caden Brown had six of the Bulldogs’ eight knocks, two each. One of Munday’s hits left the yard, a two-run blast in the first inning to kick-start the GHS offense and put the Yellowjackets back on their heels.
Luke Brewer had the only other extra-base hit for Greenwood, a third-inning RBI double, one of three runs driven home by the junior in the game. Eoff also scored three times and Munday twice. Reed Carroll didn’t have a hit but drove home two runs. Bryce Morgan had the other GHS hit and scored two runs as well.