His first season at the helm of the Bulldogs’ basketball program was a challenge, but Head Coach Donnie Husband is an optimist, and his vision for GHS boys’ basketball is a positive one. Beginning his second year at Greenwood, the veteran Oklahoma coach sees indications that things will be better this season.
But while improvement may be imminent, there will still be plenty of growing pains with such a young team populated by nearly a dozen sophomores. With half (11/22) of his roster consisting of tenth graders, there remains a steep learning curve that must be navigated before the ‘Dogs achieve the kind of consistency needed to compete in the 5A West.
But hope springs eternal, and hard work has never been a problem for Husband or his teams throughout a long career that includes over 600 victories and a pair of Oklahoma state titles. He believes that over time the current crop of Bulldogs has what it takes to make the required adjustments and learn how to play winning basketball.
The improvement will come not only from the younger players getting their first taste of varsity action, maturing and learning from their mistakes, but also from a handful of returning players who are a year older and more experienced.
Included among the returnees are seniors Jayce Garnes, Aaron Ligon, Hunter Hesslen, Stone Lee, and juniors Braden Stein, Caleb Ligon, Evan Bartlett, Sebastian Berryman, Jayden Jasna, Jase Strozier, and Noah Fimple.
The sophomore class includes Matt Parker, Jake Baxley, Joe Russell, Luke Brewer, Sam Forbus, Jay Wright, Josh Terry, Micah Lensing, Easton Hedge, Chase Beshears, and Lance Marek.
Husband freely admits that his team remains undersized and does not have a “star” player. So for these Bulldogs to be competitive, they must play with heart and work together well as a cohesive unit consistently practicing the fundamentals of the game.
Then there’s the issue of physical talent, which in basketball most often manifests itself in height or size, of which the Bulldogs have very little. Braden Stein is Greenwood’s tallest player at 6’5”, followed by Jayce Garnes and Evan Bartlett, both at 6’3”. None of their teammates are taller than 6’1” and several are below six feet.
“If we were three inches taller and two steps quicker, we’d be perfect,” said the coach with a chuckle. “But I think we’ve got some kids to work with. I think we can go ten deep and put guys on the floor that can compete. It just comes down to [putting] the ball in the basket.”
The coach further explained that his roster has about the same number of players as last season, though many of the names have changed. “We graduated some guys and had some guys decide not to play this year. We’ve got different personnel, but we’ve still got 20-something guys.”
Five of them, including two or three probable starters, are still playing football and likely won’t join the team until after the state championship game on December 7th. They include senior Aaron Ligon, juniors Jayden Jasna, Braden Stein, Jase Strozier, and sophomore Luke Brewer. Until football ends, the others will have to carry the load.
“We are young, there’s no doubt about that,” said Husband. “Young players are inexperienced, but they have a lot of time left to play. They have a lot of room to grow and three years of eligibility left.
“The bad thing is we’re going to take some lumps early with them as they gain experience,” he added. “But they have some talent and I’m excited. They work hard and love to play, so that’s encouraging.
“Working every day in practice, you see them have success, and you hope that carries over into the games. They must learn to get themselves ready to play and learn how to handle failure and success. But they’re all quality kids and hard workers, so I think they’ll be fine in the long run.
“The thing they bring to the table is the ability to make shots. For us that’s [huge] because offense has been our biggest struggle. So their ability to hit some shots and provide offense are really key,” said the coach.
“Sometimes young players have to learn to miss shots and still not be afraid to take the next one. They’ve got to accept that [the ball] is not going to go in every night and they’ve got to find other things to do. That’s part of the learning process,” said Husband.
“None of them have great size, but there is some athleticism there,” he added, sizing up the physical attributes of his sophomores. “They all need to continue to grow and get stronger. They’re all very similar in style of play. Some of them can put [the ball] on the deck a little better and drive, and some of them are catch-and-shot guys. They did pretty good last year as freshmen, so I’m excited [about them].
“We played four of them [against Lavaca], and three or four of them scored their first varsity baskets. Sam Forbus, Jay Wright, Micah Lensing, and Lance Marek all played quite a bit, and Jake Baxley came in and hit a three. So I’m not afraid to put them in. They’ve got to learn some time.
“It’s a great opportunity for them until some of those older guys come in. Hopefully, when they do fail they will understand that it’s just part of the growing process and learn from it and move on,” said the coach.
A couple of unknowns for Husband are two footballers who played basketball in junior high. Jayden Jasna and Jase Strozier are good athletes and could bring some intrigue to the team dynamic. Jasna is a starting defensive back and an excellent kick returner on the gridiron, while Strozier is a wide receiver.
“Jasna and Strozier played as freshmen, but did not play last year,” explained the coach. “They were around this summer and we’re excited about them coming out. They missed a lot last year, but they are good athletes and hopefully they can catch up quick. I don’t know where they fit in yet. We’ll have to wait and see.”
There are two key positions on the floor for all teams, and the Bulldogs are no different, the post position and the point guard spot. Based on his size and experience, Braden Stein is the logical choice to play center. At 6’5” and 293 pounds, he will clearly take up a lot of space under the basket, but Coach Husband sees much more potential for Stein.
“I thought he really improved this summer,” said the coach. “He was really committed and got better every day. He’s got the one thing [we need] and that’s size. He’s a left-handed post kid, and that always seems to give [the opposition] trouble. He’s got great hands, he’s a willing worker, and his footwork has gotten better. I’m anxious to get him [from football]. I think he’s really going to make a difference for us.
“Towards the end of [last season] he was in the six-to-eight-point range. His [conditioning] has tremendously improved. He hits his free throws and his [movement around the basket] has improved. He’s got to be a factor for us. He’s going to play a whole lot more and I think he’s going to be a big key for us.”
Stein will be backed up by a pair of sophomores, Josh Terry and Chase Beshears, neither of which has any varsity experience. “Josh is really the only post guy in that group [of sophomores]. Chase Beshears is kind of a forward-post guy. He plays around the basket. He’s a good athlete and jumps really well,” said the coach.
As for point guard, one of Husband’s two sons, Caleb Ligon, has the role now, but that could change with the arrival of Luke Brewer from football.
“Right now Caleb is our point guard, almost by default. He’s one of our better ball handlers, but it hasn’t been a natural position for him. He works at it and tries to do it, but that’s really one of the things we’re missing.
“I’m excited about Luke Brewer. He was a point guard last year as a freshman and he did a really good job. He’s quick and bouncy and he’s got a lot of things going for him. But he was injured this summer and couldn’t play, so it’s been a while since he’s picked up a basketball. But he’s athletic enough that he can get into it pretty quick,” said Husband.
“It could be [Brewer] or one of the other sophomores, or it could still be Caleb. We have the ability to move some guys around. With a motion offense you don’t necessarily need a point guard, but it would be nice to have someone take that position and run with it. That would help solidify our team and our future if we can find that guy on a consistent basis. But we’ll continue to plug along until then,” he added.
But besides Stein and whoever fills the point guard role, Husband knows that a major key to his team’s success is the play of senior forward Jayce Garnes, the team’s best player last season.
“Jace was a good player for us last year,” said his coach. “He’s probably the most consistent guy we’ve got coming back. He had a good game the other night [against Lavaca]. He’s gotten stronger and improved his athletic ability.
“He’s become a better leader and he’s really doing a good job. If we can get 12 to 15 points from him every night and keep him out of foul trouble, I think he’s got a chance to be a difference maker and have a good senior year,” said Husband.
The coach also mentioned some other players who could help the Bulldogs improve, starting with his other son, senior Aaron Ligon, currently playing running back for the football team.
“I’m proud of him,” said dad. “He had a good summer. He shot the ball well. He’s going to make something happen. It might be good or bad, but he will definitely make his presence felt,” referring to his son’s high energy persona on the court.
“Evan [Bartlett] and Caleb [Ligon] are both going to have to play well for us. We’ve got to put them in positions to succeed, but we expect a lot from them. Hopefully they can step up. They have some experience from last year.”
Juniors Sebastian Berryman and Noah Fimple may also contribute more this season, according to Husband. “They’re tweeners in size, but they are tremendous workers and they help us in a lot of different ways.”
Seniors Stone Lee and Hunter Hesslen are also expected to step up. “I think [Hunter] will [help us]. He’s capable of hitting the three. He’s starting right now, and I’m excited about what Hunter has done so far. [Stone] is a little streaky with his shot, but he’s a good passer. He brings some toughness. He’s a little scrappy.”
While offense, or lack of it, was a major concern last season, the defense was consistent. “I thought we were good defensively last year,” said the coach. “For the most part we held other teams under 40% [shooting].
“We were undersized every night, but through scouting and hard work our kids still competed defensively. I don’t think we got bullied too much and I think we can do that again.
“We’ve got to have someone step up and take the other team’s best player,” he added. “We haven’t found that guy yet, but we have some candidates. We’re going to try and make people uncomfortable. We can’t spread the floor, but in the half court we can guard,” explained the coach.
Asked about his expectations for the varsity Bulldogs this season, the coach was hopeful but cautious. “I don’t know that’s going to happen, because our conference is so tough. We’ve got Springdale, Van Buren, Northside – we’ve got [non-conference] monsters on the schedule – a lot of traditionally good programs.
“Especially early when [we won’t have the football] guys for two or three weeks. For us, success is getting to the point where we have a chance [to win] every night in the fourth quarter. This summer we lost five or six games at the buzzer against what I considered to be good teams. But it’s hard to put a number [of wins] on it. We weren’t as good [against Lavaca] as I thought we would be, but we played a lot of young guys.”
As for the state of the program at the start of his second season at Greenwood, Coach Husband is quite upbeat, but understands there is still much to be done. “I feel better about [the program], but I feel for the kids at times because they work so hard. They have worked their tails off. They’ve taken a ton of shots and lifted a ton of weights. They’ve done everything you can ask. They’ve really made a commitment. It’s just frustrating that they don’t get to feel the success and [get rewarded] for their hard work.
“But I think the state of the program is better. Having Coach Bryant back is a big deal,” he added. Bryant was absent most of last season, filling in for girls’ head coach Clay Reeves, who took an unexpected medical leave.
“Our junior high kids are going to be competitive at every level,” Husband continued. “We’re hoping to make the regional playoffs again with the freshmen. We’ve got good eighth graders and I think the seventh graders are going to be good. We’re going to try to get some things going with the younger kids.
“I think things are better. I think we’ve made some progress. [But] we’re not where we want to be and we’re still going to take some lumps. There’s a lot of success on campus and it sometimes seems we’re the ones not having it,” he said.
“It’s tough getting a group of guys to fight through that adversity. We’re not [satisfied], but we’re headed in the right direction. For them you want to speed the process up,” said Husband.