It’s no secret that the GHS varsity boys’ basketball program has experienced tough times of late, with only one winning season in the last six. While Head Coach Donnie Husband and his players have won just seven games over the past two seasons, they have shown remarkable heart and character in the face of great adversity. They’ve never quit fighting and never quit believing, despite the mounting losses and frustration.
“[Desire] has never been our problem,” said the coach. “It’s a testament to the kids’ character that they can compete when things aren’t going their way. You can say a lot of things about the last couple years, but you can’t say that the team didn’t show up and give the effort.” The frustration came when that desire and effort failed to translate into wins.
“I knew what I was getting into,” said Coach Husband at the end of last season, candidly assessing the task ahead of him when accepting the job at Greenwood. An accomplished head coach in Oklahoma with over 600 career wins and a couple of state titles on his resume, Husband expects his team to make significant strides during the 2020-21 season, while also recognizing the possible impact of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic on his players and their schedule.
As this article was being written, school districts across the state were closing their doors to in-person classroom instruction until after the Thanksgiving holiday break. Classes are set to resume on November 30th. Until then, all teaching and learning will be done via the Internet. For now, this change will not affect high school athletics, so practice and games will continue as scheduled, while taking the necessary health precautions.
“It wiped out the spring,” said Husband of the pandemic. “We would have loved to have had a summer [of workouts]. We didn’t get to go to any camps. We came back in June and started basically what was a pre-season [routine]. Coach [Chris] Young was trying to catch up [in football], so he’s having to do a lot, and we didn’t really get everybody in the gym together much at all. But the kids we did have, we put them through a pretty extensive running program, which was good, but we didn’t get to play a lot of basketball, and there’s just no substitute for being able to play. [But] it’s not like we’re more behind than anybody else. Everybody is on the same [page].”
The unpredictable pandemic aside, Husband and his players are hoping for fairer winds this season. The coach is convinced things are about to change for the better with the latest version of determined Bulldogs, who return a solid core of experienced seniors along with a large class of juniors and some talented sophomores. Four seniors, 11 juniors, and seven sophomores populate the current team roster. Coach Husband also has a new assistant coach in Dexter Pearcy, who moved up from junior high assistant last season.
Seniors Caleb Ligon, Evan Bartlett, and Jase Strozier all return, and all three are guards. Senior post-player Braden Stein is also back, though Strozier and Stein are both playing football and likely won’t join the team until the second week of December. The same can be said of promising sophomores Hunter Houston and Aiden Kennon, who’ve had their moments on the gridiron this season. Kennon is an up-and-coming receiver while Houston is the team’s #2 quarterback.
Roundball coaches everywhere are waiting for the football playoffs to end so their dual-sport athletes can report for basketball. But in Greenwood that wait is always a little longer because the Bulldogs typically go deep into the post-season, reaching the state finals in 11 of the past 16 years. It looks like this season will continue that long run of exceptional play, with the Bulldogs favored to win their 10th state championship in early December.
“We need those guys for their size and competitiveness, and putting three solid teams out there in practice every day that will really go at each other, so we’re looking forward to that,” said Coach Husband of the expected return of impact players from football – Stein, Strozier, Houston, and Kennon.
But junior guard Sam Forbus may be the key to the Bulldogs’ expected improvement this coming season. A starter and the team’s leading scorer last season as a sophomore, Forbus returns bigger, stronger, and more experienced this fall, surrounded by a more talented cast of teammates. His leadership, skills, and good health will be pivotal to turning around the ‘Dogs’ fortunes throughout the cold weather months ahead.
“We’ve got Evan Bartlett, Braden Stein, Caleb Ligon, and Jase Strozier,” he said, identifying this year’s seniors. “Jase didn’t play as a sophomore, but he played last year and [improved] as the year went on. He was able to play [junior varsity] and gained some experience there. Jase is a true competitor. He’s a true point guard and we think he can help us.
“Evan has been playing since he was a sophomore. I’ve had him three years. We played him at point last year because he is such a solid kid. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and he holds his own defensively. He’s a big guard (6-4) and he did a real good job last year,” said Husband.
“I [also] thought Braden was terrific the second half of the conference season last year. I thought he really played well. He gives us a lot of size inside. Those four guys, if they can have some confidence in themselves and believe they can be successful, I think can lead us in a more positive direction. Not that our previous seniors haven’t [done so]. They’ve just got a little more experience.”
Asked about the point guard position, Coach Husband said, “Right now it’s Evan. He’s been in the gym and gotten the reps. We’re trying to play a lot faster this year, so we’re going to need two guys at every position. Both of those guys (Strozier and Bartlett) are capable. After the state finals we’ll go to work and let them compete.
Asked about new players this season, the coach said, “We’ve had one kid move in [from Colorado], Chase Blankenship. But other than that, all of these kids played [here] last year.” Husband then talked about his junior class of players, which includes Blankenship, followed by the sophomores.
“They were all bench players in junior high and they stuck with it,” said the coach of the majority of his 11 juniors. “They are really hard workers and good program guys. There’s not a lot of size [there], but they will help us.”
The team’s junior standout is Forbus. “Sam did a good job last year,” said his coach. “He can really shoot the basketball and he’s probably grown a couple of inches. He’s going to be an important player for us. He’s a real threat and he’s going to space the floor. If you leave him open, there’s a good chance he’s going to make a shot. He had a 30-point game [last season]. Once he got his feet wet and gained confidence, he really had some good games. He’s going to do a good job.
“Lance Marek has got a chance to help us. He was a good JV kid last year,” Husband continued, adding that Marek is currently sidelined with an injury. “Jay Wright is a hard worker and good shooter, so I think he’s got a chance. Joe Russell, Chase Beshears, and Easton Hedge all have a chance to contribute.
“We’re going to try and play a true backup at every spot,” explained the coach, hoping to take advantage of better depth this season. “We’re looking at trying to get nine or 10 kids to play. We’ve played a lot slower [in the past], but I’m cautiously optimistic that we are going to score better. The question is, can we defend those extra possessions that the other team is going to get too. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s more fun to play faster and more fun to shot quicker, but we will see.”
Asked where the offense was going to come from this season, Husband said, “The points are going to come from a lot of different places. There going to come from Braden and Caleb and Evan. There going to come from Sam, and I think Aiden Kennon will score some,” he added, referring to his promising sophomore forward.
“Aiden (6-1) was really good in junior high last year. He’s a good athlete and a good size kid. I think he’s a developing shooter and he’s got a chance to play a ton,” said his coach with confidence.
“Hunter Houston is one of the great “glue” kids. He kind of ties everything together. He could play the point if he had too and he can swing around and play a lot of different positions. If he gets some confidence in his shot, I think he’s a pretty good shooter. He’s fun to watch. He plays with a lot of enthusiasm, and he’s a good teammate.
“I’m excited about those two guys (Kennon and Houston), and we’ve got some other good sophomores. Luke Haynes is a good athlete who had some good scoring games last year in junior high. And there are some other good program guys in there. It’s a pretty solid class, and it’s an interesting group. They are really close kids and they all kind of mirror one another in everything they do. They are all great students too.”
Asked about team size, the coach said, “We could be 6-6 and 6-4 with Braden and Evan, and Caleb is capable of playing bigger because he jumps well. He and Kennon are six-foot to six-one. Sam is six-foot and has some length to him. But if we have questions marks, I don’t think it’s size, it’s quickness. We don’t struggle as much vertically as we do horizontally, being quick-footed, and that makes it tough defensively sometimes if you aren’t laterally quick. We’re not going to be full court pressing anybody, because we don’t have that kind of athlete. But we have some kids that can be physical in the half court and clog up some lanes, so I think we will be alright.”
As for his plan to speed up the pace of play, especially on offense, Husband said, “[In the past] we’d get a rebound and walk the ball up the floor. Run motion or a set [play] to control tempo and try not to turn [the ball] over. This year we’re running the ball up the sideline more. We want to get it pushed up the floor. We’re just trying to shoot uncontested threes a little more and not have to just fight it out in a half-court offense.
“If we can get our offense started quicker, we can put the defense back on its heels,” he added. “We’re trying to attack and be a little more aesthetically pleasing to watch. Our junior young kids are all athletic and quick, so we want to give them a game they can win with, and obviously it’s more fun to play that way. It generates more enthusiasm. We’re just trying to create a spark – something everybody can get behind. The kids like playing that way. We do a lot of running, so we might as well try to take advantage of it. I think we will shoot the ball quicker.
“When we get Braden [Stein] in here we’re going to want to throw him the ball inside too,” continued Husband. “I haven’t seen him with a ball in his hands in a long time, but just watching football, he seems to be moving around [well], and I think he will fit right in. It will be nice in the half court to have a [real] threat to throw it [inside] to. He will draw some attention and open up some stuff for everyone else. There’s no doubt that the things he’s done [in football] will help here for sure. He can use his girth and left hand.” Stein is a southpaw shooter. The only other post player listed on the roster is junior Jackson Moffett at six feet.
Reflecting on last season, the coach recalled, “A lot of games were anywhere from eight to ten points [difference]. We were in so many more games with a chance to win, but we’ve got to be able to attack more, and I think we’ve got the players. The older guys have gotten better, and the younger guys can attack more and create more for their teammates.
“Four or five layups a game would be wonderful for us,” he added. “We will shoot the outside shot better once we get a couple layups to go in. I think we can rebound the ball, and we have multiple guys who can get it down the floor. If we can defend the possessions, then I think we can get over the hump in some of those [close] games.” Husband is hoping his team can create more wide-open uncontested shots and generate more cheap layups.
As for outside shooting prowess, the coach is convinced he has the guys to do the job. “Caleb [Ligon] is capable, but consistency is his biggest [issue],” said the coach of his son. “Evan [Bartlett] has improved his three-point shooting. Aiden Kennon can shoot them. Jay Wright comes off the bench and can shoot them. Lance Marek can shoot them. Last year in JV we probably shot more threes than twos.
“A little early success would be wonderful for us. Does confidence breed success or does success breed confidence?” he mused. “A little confidence would go a long way, if we walk in the gym and believe we are the better team or at least as good. They were four of five conference games [last season] that were hanging in the balance midway through the fourth quarter, but we’ve got to get over the hump in those games, and I think we can. [Still], it’s easy to say, but harder to do.
The undermanned Bulldogs played a benefit game at nearby Lavaca last week, losing to the Golden Arrows. “At Lavaca we committed 30 fouls and gave up 41 free throws and got beat 71-59,” said the coach. “But that game is completely different if you stick [Braden] Stein in the middle and have [Aiden] Kennon. It just seemed like every time we breathed in the wrong direction it was a foul. I don’t know that we fouled quite that much, but I get it.
“We aren’t very good defensively right now, [and] I think [the players] found out that their coach is not as dumb as they think he is. But we scored 60 [points], so it showed us that we can score better. I think Chase Beshears had 15 [points] and Sam had 16. I think Evan had 12 or 13 and Caleb had 10 or 11, and that’s without five guys (the injured Lance Marek and four footballers) we think are going to [really] help us. So there were some things to be positive about for sure.”
Regarding his team’s defensive philosophy this season, Husband remained somewhat uncommitted, saying, “We’re going to play mostly man, but there will be some games where we have to play zone. That’s one of things right now that’s still up in the air, probably until we get to [December] and we see what we have with everybody. Then we will know better exactly what we can do defensively.”
The schedule this season has been remade as a response to the pandemic. “There are no tournaments,” said the coach. “[But] in a lot of ways it worked out pretty well for us. We’re going to play Bentonville and Fayetteville [in December], and those will be good games going into conference [play]. We get to play Farmington at home. We’ve got Springdale Har-Ber, Springdale, and [Ft. Smith] Southside on the schedule, and Bentonville-West. So we got some home games out of the deal.”
Once again the Bulldogs are competing in the blended 5A West conference that includes two new members this season. “It’s pretty close to the same suspects,” said Husband of the expected competition in 2020-21. “We replaced Beebe and Little Rock Christian with Mountain Home and Van Buren. I know Van Buren has the kid that plays quarterback, and he’s a good player. Mountain Home may have five returning starters. Vilonia lost some people, but I know they have two good ones coming back. Russellville lost a good crew but had a good JV bunch. Alma lost their best player, but they have a good program. I think all the teams are still good. It will be a dogfight, but I think we’ll be closer to the pack, but we’ve got to prove that.” The league also includes both Greenbrier and Siloam Springs.
In summary, the newest version of the Bulldogs should be better – how much remains to be seen. They will have improved depth, decent size, and more scorers. “The potential is there,” says the coach. “I think we’ve got a number of kids that are capable. If we don’t have five or six double figure scorers most nights, we’ve probably failed.
“[But] one thing can send [us] in the right direction – one win, one quarter, or one kid can send [us] over the edge to where [we] want to be. If we can just have some success early, and get them hungry for more, then I think it could be a really successful season for us.”
Finally, addressing the uncertainty of a season played under the shadow of Covid-19, Husband said, “We don’t know what it’s going to look like every Tuesday and Friday night. We could benefit from some situations or we could have some guys that can’t play. We’ll just do the best we can and cross our fingers and hope it all falls into place. But I really like our kids and our team.”