The last time Greenwood High School needed a new head coach for softball, the district went out-of-state, hiring Ronnie Sockey from Oklahoma, who is now returning to his home state after ten successful years with the Lady Bulldogs. Last week, Greenwood Athletic Director Dustin Smith announced the hiring of Donald Hart from Paris – Arkansas – not France. Actually, Hart lives in the small town of Magazine, but has been the head coach for the Paris Lady Eagles for the past five years.
The new GHS hire hit the ground running last Thursday and Friday by hosting freshmen tryouts each morning, an effort that attracted a nice turnout on very short notice. Additional opportunities to try out will be available later, said the coach, who graciously took some time to talk with the Greenwood Dog Pound on Friday.
Before speaking to Hart, we also had a chance to visit with Dr. Smith regarding several coaching changes on both the varsity and junior high levels. One of the most prominent, aside from Coach Hart, has been the addition of Austin Moreton’s younger brother to the varsity football staff, replacing the departed Brandon Elmore.
The elder Moreton (age 28) is known as one of the best offensive line coaches in the state while also serving as the running game coordinator for Head Coach Chris Young and his Bulldogs. The younger Moreton will work with the defensive line. An upcoming article will detail all the coaching changes once they are finalized. Elmore also served as an assistant softball coach, and his replacement has yet to be named.
Before discussing the job search and the hiring of Coach Hart, Dr. Smith offered some kind words about the departed Coach Sockey, who won 200 games in his 10 years at Greenwood, including the missing 2020 season (Covid). Sockey said he was looking for a change and is taking over the varsity boys basketball program at Poteau, Oklahoma.
“I have the utmost respect for him and what he’s done with this program,” said Smith of Sockey. “He was not just a coach, he was a friend of mine. We were both Cubs fans, so we had that in common. We shared the misery of being Cubs fans most of the time. But for what he’s done with this program and for our school district, I can’t thank him enough.
“The program was not in great shape when he took it over, and we’ve been in the finals four times with him and won it once,” Smith continued. “And I think in 2020 we would have won it had we not had Covid, because that was a really talented team. He had a lot of success and he’s built quite the foundation for Coach Hart to take over now.”
As for the hiring process itself, Smith said, “It was a journey, because as you can imagine, this job was highly sought after. People know our school district and our athletic program. There were a lot of people interested in what we have, and that’s a tribute to Coach Sockey and what he built. Our goal was to find the best softball coach, and Greenwood sells itself.
“We had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people, and Coach Hart really separated himself. We discussed his passion for softball and what he thinks is important for our girls. He also knew our program because he’s played against us for years. He knows he has big shoes to fill, and we respect his willingness to jump in here and take over.
“There are a lot of factors that go into any [job] search,” added the Greenwood AD. “You want to find the right fit for the girls, for the community, and for the school district. I went to the girls and asked them what they wanted, and they said they wanted somebody that knows the game, somebody who will hold them accountable, someone who will help their experience be good and give them a chance for success, and [Coach Hart] checked all those boxes. He really loves the game, he cut his teeth on travel softball, and he’s done really well at Paris.”
For his part, Hart is pleased to have the opportunity to advance his career as a varsity softball coach, a profession he came to late in life after spending many years working at Planters in Fort Smith. A business major at Arkansas Tech University, the new coach has a large family, including wife Beverly, a stepson, and four daughters, the youngest of which is a high school sophomore and outfielder who hopes to see some playing time with her dad’s new team.
“I spent 19 years in the business world, and I’ve got five years in education,” revealed Hart. “I played college baseball at Tech and got a business degree. I was in manufacturing supervision. But after I met my wife and started coaching my stepson in tee ball, I realized I kind of missed my calling. I was approached about three times from a couple different schools about getting into coaching high school, and I really wanted to. But I was having kids and had bills and was building a house and just couldn’t afford it, because I was going to have to go for a time without income.
“But my daughters started getting into travel ball, and I took some kids and developed them [until] we were one of the best teams in Arkansas in our age group, and I realized I had a passion to coach softball. So my girls went to Booneville [schools] and I coached Booneville girls in league [softball] and had some that traveled with me,” Hart continued.
“The athletic director asked if I was interested in being a registered volunteer coach the next year, so I [did that] for a year and helped that team win 15 games and make the regionals. [Booneville] wanted to hire me, but things didn’t work out. Then Paris had an opening, and I told my wife I was going for it. So I put in my resume and the rest is history. Paris took a chance on me, and I was able to have a successful five years there.”
Hart revealed that his record at Paris was 92-45 (.671%) in five years, including the shortened 2020 campaign (3-1) and a down season this past spring when the Lady Eagles went 11-14. “I’ve had several 20-win seasons and went to the state semi-finals [twice],” said Hart, who’s had win totals of 23, 27, and 28 in three of his five years at Paris and twice lost in the playoffs to the eventual 3A state champions.
Beverly Hart works at Magtel, a telephone/internet company in Magazine, and her son is 26, and together she and the coach have four daughters. “My oldest is playing softball at National Park Community College in Hot Spring. This will be her second year next [season]. One just graduated and is going to Arkansas Tech, and I have a junior that’s staying at Paris, and Taylor is my sophomore. I was born and raised in Magazine and still live there and graduated there in 1992. At least until my daughter graduates [from Paris], we’re going to have to be there [Magazine], unless she decides to come here. We might look to move closer in a couple years.”
Asked about his attraction to the Greenwood job, Hart said, “There were multiple things. Obviously, it’s an opportunity for me to see how I can do at the 5A level. The support of the community for athletics was big. They have nice facilities and the numbers of kids they have that want to play softball. Year in and year out you have a [chance] to be successful at a high level. I know some people from Greenwood, and I know it’s a great community. I looked within a 50-mile radius of where I live and what is the best softball school? In my eyes, Greenwood is that school.
“I’ve known Coach Sockey since travel ball when he moved here ten years ago. My daughter was the same age [as his daughter], so we competed against each other. When I started coaching high school, we started playing them. He is a great coach and he’s built a great program and I hope to continue that success. I can’t say enough about Coach Sockey. If I needed [travel] players, he would shoot me some names, and if I ever had questions, he was very helpful. I’m not Coach Sockey, and I hope they don’t compare me to him. I hope they buy in to Coach Hart and I can start building those relationships.”
As for Hart’s staff, Diane Popp returns, but no replacement has yet been named for the departed Coach Elmore. “That’s in process,” said Hart. “We’re working on that and we’re not sure what direction we’re going there yet.” The new head coach also is waiting to hear what his secondary coaching responsibilities will be, but he will be teaching physical education and health on the high school level.
Asked to characterize the nature of his teams at Paris, Hart was quick to respond with two words, “Family atmosphere. We were close knit and gelled well. My most successful [teams] were gritty and hungry to win. They were ready to work hard. They had only won six games the year before I got there, and we won 28 [games] that first year with basically the same kids. They were eager to learn, and they bought in real quick to what I was selling. I did have two elite pitchers, but the other players bought in and worked hard and got better. They wanted to win, and it didn’t matter what it took. They were great teammates, and I’m going to be preaching that here.”
Reminded that the Lady Bulldogs are loaded with returning talent for next spring, including a pair of junior pitchers, Hart is eager to watch video of last season’s team in action. The GHS girls lost just two seniors to graduation and one of them was injured the second half of the season, so the cupboard is far from empty. “I know I’ve got some good pieces of the puzzle coming back,” he said with appreciation.
“My oldest daughter was a pitcher and she’s pitching in college, so I’ve been sitting on a bucket since she was nine years old. I know a lot of girls from Greenwood take lessons from the same pitching coach, [but] I’m pretty familiar with pitching mechanics [too]. I understand the work that goes into developing an elite pitcher and I’m bringing that knowledge with me. I have a good understanding of pitch calling, location, and all the things that make a pitcher successful. We’re going to work hard in bullpens and do all the things to get them prepared for spring.
“Success does start in the circle, and I experienced that last year when I went from having a dominant pitcher to two [girls] that we just learning. You need a couple [pitchers] in every grade. Elite pitching will win you a lot of ballgames, but if you have somebody who can hit spots, change speeds, and spin it a little bit, you can have a lot of success too.
“We should be able to hit the ground running,” said Hart, who is planning on a short slate of games in July against Pocola, Oklahoma. “We’ll be doing some scrimmaging in July. Normally we’d be off, but since I was hired late, I want to get right to work. When we get back from the [AAA] dead period, we will have some competition and see where we’re at. They’re going to get a feel for who Coach Hart is and how I coach.” He also plans to start his pre-season work next January, while understanding that several of his girls also play basketball.
“We will be practicing year around, because where they’re at today, they’re going to be better come March. I’m going to push them. We’re going to work on fundamentals and we’re going to get better in every aspect of the game,” said Hart, who also coached basketball at Paris High School for a couple years.
“I’m figuring it out,” he said as the interview ended. “I’m going to get some on-the-job training, but I’m very excited and can’t wait to build some relationships with my peers, parents, and players. I’m a pretty outgoing personable guy and I like to talk.” The coach added that he had about 15 freshman girls show up for each day of tryouts, and more were expected later, though he doesn’t plan to cut anyone this early in his tenure as the Lady Bulldogs’ new head coach.