The winning streak that no one really wants to talk about is still intact, but not without a herculean effort by the Freshmen Bulldogs last Thursday night at Smith-Robinson Stadium. After falling behind 20-7 midway through the second quarter to a very good Dardanelle team, the Jr. Bulldogs rallied to retake the lead at 21-20, then fell behind again, 28-21, before tying the game and winning in overtime on a gutsy two-point conversion, 36-35.
It was certainly the wildest game in the young head coaching career of Luke Hales, now 3-0 after leading his team to their 23rd consecutive victory dating back to the 2020 season. But the freshmen ‘Dogs made it hard on their coach and themselves with several uncharacteristic and costly turnovers, one of which led to a defensive touchdown by the Sand Lizards, making their first trip to Smith-Robinson Stadium.
Dardanelle High School plays in the 5A West on the varsity level against teams like Harrison and Farmington, and its ninth-grade team joined Greenwood’s junior high league this season after the breakup of the River Valley Conference with the departure of the Fort Smith schools this season.
But the Sand Lizards acquitted themselves very well with their play and they certainly looked the part, with plenty of size and speed. Ultimately, however, it was the consistency of Greenwood’s big offensive line, the running of tailback Wesley Raggio, along with the play of quarterback Cooper Goodwin and the Greenwood defense that made the difference.
The home team received the opening kickoff and immediately marched 60 yards in 16 plays, the longest drive of the night by either squad. Raggio set up the scoring drive with a nice kick return of 24 yards. He also carried the ball on the first two snaps of the possession, advancing the ball to the 49-yard-line. Quarterback Cooper Goodwin then ran a keeper to the visitors’ 48 for a first down.
But a big penalty on Greenwood threatened the drive, pushing the Bulldogs back to their own 37 facing first-and-25 before an offsides penalty on Dardanelle and a run by Raggio moved the ball across midfield to the visitors’ 47. Goodwin threw for six yards to Lawyer Thornsberry, then the Greenwood QB rambled to the Dardanelle 30.
Four more rushing plays gained the 17 before Goodwin’s screen pass to Raggio reached the 8-yard-line, setting up first-and-goal. It took four snaps, but the freshmen ‘Dogs scored on fourth down with Raggio doing the honors from less than a yard out. The extra point kick by Laydn Casanova was good for a 7-0 Greenwood lead (2:40).
Then things went south for Greenwood over the next few minutes as the Sand Lizards ripped off 20 consecutive points, but not without some help from the home team. Dardanelle tied the game moments later on a 45-yard sideline sprint by their quarterback and the subsequent extra point, 7-7.
On the ensuring kickoff, Wesley Raggio turned in a great return, crossing midfield into Dardanelle territory, but fumbled the ball at the Sand Lizards’ 36, giving possession back to the visitors. Fortunately, assistant coach Eric Daniel’s defense was up to the task and forced a quick punt. But the turnover cost the Bulldogs a first half possession.
When the Sand Lizards made a similar stop, forcing a punt, Cooper Goodwin’s quick kick took a great roll all the way to the Dardanelle 1-yard-line. But a Greenwood penalty moved the ball to the six. Then on the next snap the Sand Lizards’ running back streaked 94 yards down the home sideline for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead after the PAT.
With 6:26 left in the second period the Bulldogs had plenty of time and every reason to believe they could pull even or retake the lead before the half expired. But another huge mistake cost them dearly when Cooper Goodwin’s short pass attempt was picked off at the line of scrimmage and returned about 70 yards for a defensive touchdown. However, the Sand Lizards missed the extra point, making the score 20-7.
But the final five minutes of the half was filled with lots of activity, including another Greenwood turnover, a needed defensive stop, and a long touchdown drive by the freshmen ‘Dogs that put them back in the game before the break. The fumble happened at the Greenwood 44, but a stubborn home defense refused to budge, forcing a quick Dardanelle punt that rolled to the home 9-yard-line.
From there the Bulldogs marched 81 yards in eight plays, scoring on a pass from Goodwin to Brayden Sheppard. The Greenwood QB did a good job buying time with his feet before finding Sheppard near the 5-yard-line. The fourth down play covered 37 yards with about 30 seconds left in the half. Casanova’s kick was good, drawing the Bulldogs within a touchdown of the lead, 20-14.
Some solid defense by Greenwood and a bit of good luck helped keep the game close early in the third quarter. After the home defense forced a punt by the Sand Lizards on the half’s first possession, the Bulldogs took over at their own 24, but the offense couldn’t advance the ball, forcing yet another punt. However, a poor snap led to a blocked kick recovered by Dardanelle at the Greenwood 4-yard-line.
But after a loss on first down back to the six, the Sand Lizards gave the ball right back to Greenwood on an ill-advised play by their quarterback. Stretching the ball out toward the goal line, he lost control and fumbled the ball into the end zone for a touchback, giving the Bulldogs the football at their own 20, and they took advantage of it.
With Goodwin at the helm, the ‘Dogs marched 84 yards in six plays plus a pair of penalties to regain the lead. A penalty pushed the ball back to the 16 before Wesley Raggio ran twice for 21 yards to the 37. A flag on Dardanelle moved the ball to the home 48 before Goodwin hooked up with receiver Malaki Efurd for a big gain to the visitors’ 22. Three snaps later Goodwin executed a great fake, keeping the ball himself around right end for the score from 16 yards out. Casanova’s kick made it 21-20 with 2:29 left in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs got the football back just as the fourth stanza began, but were unable to capitalize after being pinned back at their 9-yard-line with a good Dardanelle punt. Goodwin’s punt moments later gave the Sand Lizards the ball at the home 44 with just over six minutes remaining to play. But the visitors needed just 1:30 to score and retake the lead after a five-play drive that ended with a 10-yard QB keeper for the touchdown, followed by a successful two-point conversion pass play, making the score 28-21 in Dardanelle’s favor.
With 4:37 left to play, the freshmen Bulldogs went back to work on offense with Raggio and Goodwin sharing the load behind their big teammates up front on the line. The possession began with another big kick return by Raggio to midfield, a 34-yard effort that put the ball at the Sand Lizards’ 49-yard-line.
Raggio then carried twice for 23 yards to the 26 before Goodwin ran a keeper to the 19. Raggio then finished the job with a sprint around right end and into the end zone. With nearly three minutes left, Coach Hales elected to kick the extra point to tie the score, and Casanova’s boot was good, knotting the game at 28-all.
But Coach Hales and his team weren’t done yet, recovering a well-executed sky kick by female kicker Farrah Crossno. Michael Shaw covered the ball for the home team at the Dardanelle 37, putting the offense back on the field. But a pair of nice plays by the visiting defense pushed Greenwood back to the 43. A short third down pass completion and a penalty on Greenwood put the ball at the 46 on fourth-and-19 with time running down. After a timeout to consider his options, Coach Hales elected to punt the ball away with 19 seconds left, and the game went into overtime.
Starting at the Greenwood 10-yard-line, the Sand Lizards needed four plays to score, the last one from a yard out, adding the PAT for a 35-28 lead. Likewise, Greenwood started at the Dardanelle 10 and also needed four plays to score. After a 1-yard loss, Goodwin passed to Lawyer Thornsberry for six yards to the five, then kept the ball himself on third down, coming up just short of the goal line, bringing up fourth down.
On the next snap, Goodwin kept the ball again straight up the middle for the touchdown. But this time Coach Hales decided to go for two points and win or lose on that play. Trusting his offensive line, Hales called Goodwin’s name again and the Greenwood QB scored easily to win the game, 36-35, in overtime.
Wesley Raggio finished the contest with over 100 yards rushing (unofficially) and nearly that many yards in kick returns. He also scored twice. Cooper Goodwin recovered from that early interception return for a touchdown and guided his teammates to a win, scoring twice himself on the ground and throwing for another TD to Brayden Sheppard. Plus, much credit goes to the Greenwood offensive line and the defense for getting the job done when it counted the most.
Coach Hales had the following to say after the overtime victory. “That was a great one. Our kids did so well,” he said. “They played so hard and never gave up, and we were really challenged. Dardanelle had some really talented players and they were well-coached. They played hard. But our kids stepped up. It was a great night to be a Bulldog. All of our players, grades seven through nine, got to dress out and be on the sideline. It was a pretty special deal.”
Hales continued to praise the play of Dardanelle’s quarterback and running back, a duo that gave Greenwood fits all night. “We won’t see that kind of talent the rest of the [season], except maybe when we play Shiloh [Christian]. Those two kids did awesome. They played hard the entire game on both sides [of the ball]. They did a great job.”
On the subject of turnovers, Hales said, “We shot ourselves in the foot. We scored on the first drive and were feeling good about it, but we kind of shot ourselves in the foot. We made mistakes. We turned the ball over and we didn’t tackle. Our defense did a great job. They held up for the most part the whole game. But when you’re dealing with kids so talented and fast – we don’t have kids that fast – we have to be great in our technique. We have to be mean and fly to the football, and over the course of the game our kids figured that out and they did it. I think it took us a [while] to figure out just how fast [Dardanelle’s] kids could go and change directions.”
Asked about his strategy in the late going, Hales said, “We always want to run the ball with our offensive line, starting with Akira Fujibayashi at center, and then our guards, Sullivan Shoppach and Justin Permenter, then Sam Hicks, Sylas Green, and Landon Billy [at the tackles]. We have an advantage there. We have to go out and do it, but we want to run the ball, spread it to the outside, and throw it over [the opponent’s] head when [they] get in tight. [Dardanelle’s] guys playing the entire game both ways gave us an advantage [late], so we picked up the tempo a little bit at the end of the game and started running the ball.”
The coach also explained his reasons for going for two points in the overtime period, the main one being the end of the field they were playing on. “The team that lost the toss can actually switch ends of the field after the first overtime, so that factored into our decision to go for two, because our student section was down there, the high school players were down there, and our band was down there. We had all the momentum on that end, so we were going to let it ride and let the result be the result. But [both teams] had to go to fourth down to score.”
As for his decision to run Cooper Goodwin on the two-point play right after the freshman QB had scored the touchdown, Hales said, “Just a lot of trust in Cooper and our offensive line. We want to put the ball in their hands. They do the work. Our kids do the work, they make the tackles, they make the catches. None of this happens without our players, and I’m so proud of them the way they stepped up and fought and finished.”