A new season of prep gridiron action is just around the corner and the Greenwood Bulldogs are looking at a much different schedule than over the past few years. The 6A West has changed drastically with the subtraction of three teams and the addition of three more opponents that reached the semi-finals of Class 5A last season.
The non-conference slate has also changed, with only two games to prepare the troops before the start of league play, and one of those two games is against the powerhouse Stillwater Pioneers from Oklahoma. The other is against traditional rival Fort Smith Northside. The Bulldogs will travel to Fayetteville on August 16th for the team’s annual pre-season scrimmage.
“[Fort Smith] Southside dropped us this year, and we hated that because that was a good game for our fans and our kids,” said Head Coach Chris Young. Of course, the Bulldogs had a double-digit winning streak against the Mavericks, which likely figured into the decision to cancel the series by Southside.
“We struggled to find [another] team in Arkansas,” continued Young. “We called around but couldn’t find a game. I think they [Stillwater] were in a similar situation. People didn’t want to play them in Oklahoma, and that’s a credit to their program. But we’re excited about it. Hopefully it will be a series we’ll play for a long time,” confirming that the game could turn into an annual contest, since both teams have trouble finding non-conference opponents.
In a recent interview, Young reflected on last December’s state championship loss to El Dorado, a season that saw the Bulldogs devastated by injuries to key players. Greenwood started four sophomores and a freshman against the Wildcats. But the GHS head coach refused to blame the loss on injuries. “You’ve got to give El Dorado credit,” he said. “We ran into a hot team late, but we weren’t happy with how we played. Injuries are an excuse. We need to coach better and play better.
“Our theme this year (2022) is a ‘blank slate.’ We don’t care what we did last year. It’s about starting right now and writing our own script. But that trophy belongs here, and we know that,” continued the coach. “We don’t like it sitting in El Dorado, but those guys earned it. We’re going to do everything possible to make sure that trophy gets back to where it belongs.”
Young was asked if having just two non-conference games this season was a concern. “Not really,” he answered. “I’m more concerned about the two teams we’re playing. We could be a really good team and be 0-2 after playing Stillwater and Northside. We’ve always believed that playing good teams early in the year is important because it shows us real quick what we need to get better at. We want to win them all, but we really want to win the last one.”
“Stillwater and Northside are both well-coached teams,” Young continued. “Both are very athletic and will expose any weaknesses we have. Playing better teams early in the year lets us know what we’ve got to fix so we’re where we want to be at the end of the year.
“They’re a little bit bigger school than we are,” said Young of Stillwater with an enrollment of over 1,200 students. “I think Bixby (OK) is the only team that’s knocked them out the last two years, and Bixby is the best team in Oklahoma regardless of classification.” Indeed, Bixby has won 49 consecutive games, setting a new state record, including two wins over Stillwater last season. Greenwood travels to Stillwater on August 26th.
The [Pioneers’] quarterback is OSU’s head coach [Mike] Gundy’s son (Gage), and he had a really good season last year. We watched them play a 7-on-7 a couple weeks ago and they got after it. They reeled off about five or six [wins] in a row (against Van Buren, Bentonville, Owasso, Jenks). They throw and catch the ball well and play great defense. Their kids play hard and remind me of our kids – smaller guys that can really run. It’s going to be a good challenge,” said Young. It will also be the longest road trip of the season for the Bulldogs – about 3 ½ hours by bus – or about 65 miles northeast of OKC.
Week two (Sept. 2nd) finds the Bulldogs at Smith-Robinson Stadium for their home opener against the Northside Grizzlies. Hooten’s Arkansas Football has the Bears picked fifth in the 7A Central after finishing last season at 7-5, including a season opening win over Greenwood, 29-20. The Northsiders also reached the second round of the state playoffs in 2021 in their last season under Head Coach Mike Falleur, replaced by former defensive coordinator Felix Curry.
The Grizzlies are always very athletic with speed to burn and have a long tradition of winning football. Its always a good game, especially since Coach Young’s dad, Joe Fred, was a longtime head coach at Northside, winning several state titles, often with his son Chris sharing the sideline with him. It’s something of a homecoming for the GHS head coach.
“We just look forward to playing whoever we play that week,” said Young when asked about home versus road games, which are pretty well balanced on this year’s schedule except games two and three, both of which are at home. The Bulldogs play five homes games and five road games alternating every week, so they are never on the road for two weeks straight. Hopefully, they will get two playoff games at home as well, including Thanksgiving weekend.
Week three (Sept. 9th) finds the Bulldogs hosting the Mountain Home Bombers in the conference opener. “We don’t have to go to Mountain Home [this year] and they are not happy about it,” Young said of Mountain Home. “They lost that draw and have to come here for the third game in a row.” The Bombers traveled to Greenwood twice last season, the first time in the regular season and again in the playoffs, losing both games.
Head Coach Steve Ary is optimistic about this season with 19 seniors, 11 returning starters, and 30 sophomores from an undefeated junior high team, but his coaching peers don’t share his outlook, picking the Bombers last in the revamped 6A West. But Mountain Home is on an upward trajectory after qualifying for the playoffs in two consecutive years.
Up next for the Bulldogs on September 16th is a trip to Siloam Springs. The Panthers and Bulldogs have a long history together, but Siloam Springs suffered through a 1-9 campaign in 2021 under Head Coach Brandon Craig, losing three games by four points or less. However, twelve starters return from that team, eight of them on defense. The team will be led by a new quarterback, still unnamed, and the Panthers’ fortunes will largely depend on retooling their offense. They are picked to finish eighth in the league by the coaches of the 6A West, according to Hooten’s.
Back home on the 23rd, the Bulldogs take on the Van Buren Pointers. It will be homecoming night for Greenwood and should be a win for the home team, though Van Buren has 13 starters returning from last year’s 4-6 squad. They will also be under the direction of a new head coach in Mo Henry, formerly the team’s defensive coordinator. The Pointers failed to score against the Bulldogs last season and are picked to finish sixth this year by the 6A West coaches, which would make Van Buren a playoff team.
September has five Fridays this year, and the final game of the month will be on the last day of the month (30th) at new 6A West member Greenbrier in Central Arkansas. The two schools were in the same conference prior to 2012 when Greenwood was promoted to Class 6A. The last time they met in regular season play was 2011, and both were undefeated and ranked 1-2 in Class 5A. Behind a stellar performance by quarterback Hayden Smith, the Bulldogs won that game, 59-35 in route to another state title that season. But in 2022 the Panthers must adjust to play on the 6A level and are picked to finish seventh in the league with only five returning starters.
After an off week on October 7th, game seven has the ‘Dogs hosting Lake Hamilton on the 14th. The Wolves have been very good over the past few years, with one of the top running games in the state, but not good enough to upset Greenwood, who shut down that running game and won 35-0 over Lake Hamilton in the 2021 regular season finale. The Wolves have 10 returning starters this season and should be a playoff team once again, though the competition in the 6A West has gotten tougher. League coaches picked the Wolves fourth in the conference standings for 2021.
On October 21st the Bulldogs travel to Russellville to take on the Cyclones, who qualified for the playoffs last season and finished with a 5-6 overall record under first year head coach Dave Wheeler. With 11 starters returning from that team, the Cyclones are projected to repeat last year’s performance. Conference coaches selected them as the fifth best team in the league, good enough to make the postseason.
Then things get very interesting for Greenwood, which should be unbeaten in league play at that point in the season. The Bulldogs’ week nine opponent is Pulaski Academy (PA), winners of numerous state titles across different classifications over the past two decades, most recently Class 5A. Along with Little Rock Christian (LRC), the other private school powerhouse, PA was promoted by the Arkansas Activities Association to the 6A level to equalize the competition.
“They call it competitive equity, I think, but they didn’t do a very good job of it because they put some really good teams in the 6A West,” said Coach Young. “I expect those teams [including Greenbrier] to make a run once the playoffs come around.”
As for Pulaski Academy, the GHS head coach added, “We haven’t played them in so long, I really don’t know what to expect. Coach [Anthony] Lucas has done a great job taking over that program. Their success is unmatched. Nobody has done what they’ve done at that level. We’ve played PA and LRC in the state championship game. We’ve played Greenbrier in the conference in the past. All three of those teams were in the final four of Class 5A last year. It’s definitely made our conference harder. It’ll be fun to see how it falls. It’ll be a challenge. Our kids are excited about it and the opportunity to play them this year.”
The PA Bruins have won seven of the last eight 5A state titles, losing only to Little Rock Christian in 2018. It’s no wonder the AAA decided to move PA up into a higher classification, along with LRC. No doubt the rest of Class 5A feels a sense of relief, except that the AAA also demoted Little Rock Parkview from 6A to 5A, and the Patriots are an extremely talented program on the upswing in recent years, including a win over Greenwood in 2021.
PA has seven returning starters, but that number doesn’t seem to matter to the Bruins from year to year. Their roster can change annually with the arrival of new and talented players wanting to be a part of the private school’s winning tradition. Averaging about 50 points per game last season, there is little doubt the Bruins will continue their dominant play against most teams in the 6A. The 6A West coaches’ poll in Hooten’s picked PA to win the league title, and that would likely require a win over Greenwood, though that game will be played at Smith-Robinson Stadium on October 28th.
Only slightly less dominant than Pulaski Academy are the Little Rock Christian Warriors, who appeared in three straight state championship games (2018-2020) and the semifinals in 2021, winning a state championship in 2018. The private school has won 54 games over the past five seasons under Head Coach Eric Cohu and have eight starters returning for the 2022 campaign.
Greenwood will travel to Little Rock for their regular season finale against LRC on Friday, November 4th, either to put the finishing touch on a conference championship or to battle the Warriors for playoff positioning. The league coaches picked Little Rock Christian to finish third behind PA and Greenwood in the conference standings.
Finally, while the 6A coaches’ poll picked Pulaski Academy to win the league crown, the Hooten’s staff picked the Bulldogs as the best team in Class 6A once again, followed by Pulaski Academy, Benton, Lake Hamilton, and Little Rock Christian, rounding out the top five, four of which come from the stacked 6A West.
According to Hooten’s, “Top-ranked Greenwood defines modern-day public school tradition. The Bulldogs, powered by seven returnees on offense, [will] play in their 10th state championship game in the past 13 years. Senior Hunter Houston and freshman Kane Archer offer rare depth at quarterback, and the passing attack thrives with three returning receivers. The offensive output outweighs concerns over an inexperienced defense.” Good call, Hooten’s.