After last week’s humbling 60-24 loss at powerhouse Shiloh Christian, the Greenwood freshmen Bulldogs regrouped to win their season finale at Alma last Thursday, 21-20. The victory earned them an 8-2 record in Luke Hales’ first season as head coach. The former GHS and University of Central Arkansas star quarterback got an early promotion last summer when previous head coach Shannon Rhea unexpectedly left for another coaching job in Bentonville. Hales was the offensive coordinator for the ninth grade team in his first season back at Greenwood in 2021.
The game at Alma was close throughout, with the Airedales leading for much of the second quarter before the visitors tied the score at halftime, 14-all. Both teams scored once in the second half, but a missed two-point conversion cost the home team a possible victory. It was the third time this season the Jr. Bulldogs won a game by a single point.
Greenwood received the opening kick and started its first offensive possession at the visitors’ 25-yard-line. An option pitch from quarterback Cooper Goodwin to running back Wesley Raggio was good for a first down at the 42. Three plays later Goodwin threw to receiver Brayden Sheppard for a big gain to the Alma 18. Two snaps later Goodwin found Lawyer Thornsberry for a completion to the 4-yard-line and a fresh set of downs.
Three plays after that, Goodwin rolled to his right and found Benton Hossley in the end zone for a touchdown catch with 5:06 showing on the scoreboard clock. The extra point kick by Laydn Casanova was good for a 7-0 Greenwood lead. But the Junior Airedales responded quickly with a touchdown drive of their own to knot the score.
Throughout the game the home team relied heavily on their quarterback, both offensively and defensively. The Alma freshman QB easily accounted for 90% of his team’s offense, both with his arm and his legs. He ran numerous keepers for significant yardage and completed several passes as well, besides doing double duty as a key player on defense. He ran for two scores and threw for another. But when it counted most, the visiting defense stopped him on the critical two-point conversion try late in the game.
Alma’s opening drive was set up nicely by a long kick return to the Greenwood 34. Six plays and one Greenwood penalty later the Airedales reached pay dirt, scoring on a 10-yard QB keeper. The extra point tied the score at 7-7 with 2:32 left in the opening period. The Alma defense then stiffened and got the ball back quickly, aided by a poor Greenwood punt that gave the ball back to the Airedales at the visitors’ 23-yard-line.
The scoring drive required only four plays, the last of which resulted in another quarterback scoring run from seven yards out on the first snap of the second quarter. The extra point try was good, putting Alma on top 14-7 with 7:54 remaining in the second quarter. As it turned out, that was just enough time for Greenwood to score again before the half ended.
The Alma defense was able to stop the Jr. ‘Dogs on their next possession, taking over on downs at the home 33-yard-line with time dwindling away. Likewise, the visiting defense returned the favor with a quick three-and-out before Cody Johnson blocked the Alma punt, recovered by Greenwood at the home 22-yard-line with 1:28 left in the half.
After getting pushed back to the 26, Cooper Goodwin rambled to the 18 on a QB keeper, bringing up fourth down. Cooper then handed off to Wesley Raggio in the backfield, who flipped the ball to Brayden Sheppard on what appeared to be a double reverse, at least until Sheppard pulled up and lofted a pass to the back left corner of the end zone for Benton Hossley. The GHS receiver was well covered, but made a great leaping catch, keeping one foot in bounds for the touchdown. The extra point by Casanova was good with 20 seconds left in the half, tying the score at 14-14.
The home team received the opening kick of the third quarter, but a turnover quickly shifted the momentum in favor of the Bulldogs. Linebacker Caleb Cox snatched the errant pass out of the air and returned it across midfield, but a penalty after the pick moved the ball back to the Greenwood 42. Twelve plays later the Bulldogs pulled ahead to stay.
The biggest play of the possession was a third-and-nine conversion to keep the drive alive. Goodwin completed a pass to Lawyer Thornsberry for a first down at the Alma 14, moving the sticks. Two snaps later, Thornsberry caught another Goodwin offering, reaching the 2-yard-line, setting up the touchdown on a dump pass from Goodwin to Cody Johnson. Casanova’s kick was good, putting the visitors ahead 21-14 with 1:41 left in the third quarter.
Alma used the next six minutes for its final scoring drive, covering 62 yards, starting at their own 38 after the kick return. By the time the fourth quarter began, the Jr. Airedales had reached the Greenwood 28 before the visiting defense began to slow down the Alma advance with the help of a procedure penalty on the home team. Three snaps went for losses or no gain, but eventually the home team scored on a 23-yard pass play to a wide open receiver in the end zone.
Preparing to tie the game on an extra point kick with 3:23 left to play, the Airedales’ coaching staff changed their mind after an offsides penalty on Greenwood, moving the ball to the 1½-yard-line. Instead, they lined up for a two-point conversion, confident in their quarterback to get the necessary yardage, but he came up short as the visiting defense collapsed on the middle of the line to prevent him from reaching the goal line, keeping the score at 21-20.
Regarding that critical extra point try, Coach Hales said, “It was Drew Lowe who jumped offsides, but he was doing exactly what we told him to do. We want our kids to be aggressive. Drew is a kid that stepped up the second half of the season and really did a good job for us in the secondary. But on the two-point conversion, we had Akira Fujibayashi, Sam Hicks, and Cody Johnson in the middle. Those guys got the initial push, then I think Jin Sayadeth and Blaze McDaniel came up and stopped the quarterback, who had been running all over us all night. But when our defense had to have it, they were on point. They played so hard, and they never gave up, and Coach [Eric] Daniel did a great job getting them prepared.”
The Bulldogs’ offense then ran out the remaining time, helped by a long pass play from Goodwin to Thornsberry, good for 45 yards to the Alma 28. After moving to the 12-yard-line, Goodwin knelt twice to run out the final seconds on the narrow victory over Greenwood’s longtime rival Alma.
Asked about his first season as a head coach, Hales said, “It’s been a great opportunity and I had a lot of fun. I’d like to have won every game, but sometimes that’s just not how it goes. And I’m so blessed to have a great coaching staff, with coaches Eric Daniel, Brian Sims, and Easton Barrett, who I played with [at Greenwood].
“It was a great [season],” he continued. “Our kids fought and battled. We didn’t perform as well as we wanted to on some nights, but we’ll be better because of it. We understand that the junior high program is the developmental part of the Greenwood Bulldogs [varsity]. We’re just trying to get our kids prepared to play on Friday nights, and I think we’ve got several of them in this group who have a chance to make an impact next year, and we’re really excited about that.”
Asked if any of his freshmen players were being considered for promotion to the varsity team for the playoffs, Hales said, “I believe Coach [Chris] Young is going to make that decision over the weekend.” The senior high Bulldogs lost last Friday at Little Rock Christian and lost a key player to injury in junior receiver Peyton Presson, who is now out for the post-season. Presson had shone brightly in recent weeks as one of Greenwood’s best receiving options.