Mercado and talented Diamond ‘Dogs ready to go

Mercado and talented Diamond ‘Dogs ready to go

In June 2019 when Chad Mercado was hired as head coach of the Bulldogs’ baseball team, he had high hopes for his first season at Greenwood, and for good reason. The Diamond ‘Dogs had just finished 20-9 that spring, were only a year removed from winning the Class 6A state championship in 2018, and had a solid nucleus of quality players returning.

Mercado was also named head coach of the GHS bowling teams, the same as his coaching predecessor, Trey Holloway. But the new Bulldogs’ hire could not possibly have guessed he would coach two full bowling seasons at Greenwood before completing his first baseball campaign, which he hopes to do this spring. Thank you, Covid-19.

Five games into their 2020 season, the Diamond ‘Dogs and every other spring sports team in Arkansas were shut down as the coronavirus began to make its presence known in America. Then what was a temporary halt in play quickly became permanent when all organized sports of any kind were cancelled, and schools were closed nationwide for the remainder of the academic year.

The Bulldogs lost their first two games last year, but won three straight before the stoppage ruined their season, costing their seniors what should have been their most memorable campaign. Coach Mercado reflected on the season that wasn’t during a recent telephone interview previewing the 2021 Bulldogs, a team with great potential.

The former Beebe High School assistant coach described the frustration he shared with his coaching staff and players over the shutdown. “It was one of the weirdest things we’ve ever been through,” he began. “We had just gotten our entire roster together with the guys that were in basketball and wrestling, and there was a lot of growth within our first five games. There was a lot to be excited about.

“They were learning me and I was learning [about] them, but to be cut short that abruptly was tough. Then to have two or three weeks of limbo, not knowing what we were going to do. There was an awkwardness to it, to be in a holding pattern to where you think you can’t do anything. [It] was excruciating,” he added.

The interrupted 2020 season also impacted their preparations for the 2021 campaign. Like all other high school teams in the state in every sport, the Diamond ‘Dogs weren’t allowed to return to the weight room or practice field until June 1st, by which time many of Mercado’s players were training for the upcoming football season, leaving him with only a handful of athletes.

“We didn’t do anything,” he said regarding the shutdown. “I made breakfast and had the seniors over for a social distance gathering and got to hang out with those guys for the last time. I got to see some guys play summer baseball, but by-in-large we did nothing until June 1st, then we got in the weight room. I [had] eight to 10 guys coming in three or four times a week. We got to do some one-on-one baseball stuff, but the big thing was to get more athletic, and we had a lot of guys do that. We had some guys really transform their body the last 12 months.”

As for his 2020 seniors, the coach laments their lost opportunity to play and build those lifelong memories, but he also expressed pride in their character and how they handled a tough situation. “Those guys are doing great,” he said. “I’m really proud of [them] and what they’re doing now. I’m excited for them, even though they had a challenging last year.”

But it wasn’t just the seniors who suffered. The underclassmen also lost critical development time and a season worth of game experience they can never recover. “We had two to four sophomores last year that were going to be able to contribute at some point (innings pitched, at bats), and that’s gone. But I think the guys have done a really good job of being focused and showing up with the effort we’re asking of them, because they are so excited to get to play again.

The GHS head coach also talked with some friends and peers across the state as summer turned into fall, and like others in the coaching community, Mercado opted to modify his normal training schedule. “I really tried to back off a little bit toward the end of November and December, because if I was feeling it, [the players] were probably feeling it [too]. It just seemed like we had been practicing for years.”

But despite the trials and tribulations of the 2020 team, the newest bunch of Bulldogs are still loaded with talent and potential, and like last spring, a number of this year’s players are likely to take their skills to the next level after graduation.

“We’ve got several guys that are going off to play college baseball, which is always a good thing,” said Coach Mercado. “That tells [us] that [we’ve] got talent, and we’ve got younger guys that are going to get attention and be recruited as well. Talent-wise, we’ve got a solid 12 to 15 guys that [will] form the nucleus of the varsity team.

While the 2021 squad appears to lack the slugging power of their immediate predecessors, this year’s team is deep, versatile, speedy, and talented on the mound, in the field, and at the plate. According to Mercado, his Bulldogs will feature solid pitching, excellent defense, aggressive baserunning, and will hit to contact with just enough power to keep the opposition honest.

But this is baseball, and it all starts with pitching, something Greenwood has excelled in for years. Coach Mercado is also a big believer in player versatility and lineup flexibility as a team. This current GHS roster has both in spades.

“On the varsity squad we don’t have anybody that just pitches,” explained the coach. “All of our pitchers play another position, so that gives us quite a bit of flexibility.” The Bulldogs have several such hurlers that fit into that category.

At the top of the list is senior righthander Landry Jurecka. In addition to being the ace of the pitching staff, he also plays shortstop or third base when not on the mound and will bat in the middle of the order.

“Landry was going to be one of our [starting pitchers] last year, but he tore his ACL (in December 2019),” said the coach. “But I’m really excited to have him back out there. He will lead our staff. He’s moving without restrictions and we’re excited to get him back. He’s a fastball – slider [pitcher] predominantly, and mixes in a changeup.

“He’s going to be 85 to 88 [mph] on his fastball with outstanding command,” Mercado continued. “He’s also got a well-above-average slider that he can throw any time he wants. He’s got great control and he loves to compete. When he’s up there (on the mound) it’s fun to watch. He’s probably 6-1, 200 pounds. He definitely passes the eye test.”

But while the senior will get his fair share of starts against conference foes, there is plenty of talent behind him, even if they are yet to sort themselves out by role and performance. “Everything behind Landry is open,” said the coach. “Between Matthew Munday, Chance Eoff, Reed Carroll, and Aiden Kennon.” Eoff and Carroll are seniors, while Munday is a junior and Kennon a sophomore.

Senior Colton Peyton is also in the mix after changing his delivery. “Coleton has done a great job developing as a sidearm [pitcher],” said Coach Mercado. “We started experimenting last year and he’s dropping down more and more and has been really effective in intersquad [games]. After Landry [the competition is] very open in a positive way.

“Eoff is [our] lefty,” the coach continued. “[But] he’s had a lot of arm trouble, so we’re trying to ramp up his innings, and he’s done a great job. He’s had two or three surgeries on his elbow, [so] we dropped him down a little bit. He’s kind of got that Chris Sale or Randy Johnson arm slot now, kind of three-quarters.

“He had a good breaking ball when he was over the top, and it might be even better now. He’s got a really good feel for it. A lot of [hitters] aren’t going to [pick up] that arm slot. He’s [also] a strike thrower. He’ll be 80 to 83 [mph] with a good breaking ball, and he’s learning how to throw a changeup [too].

“Reed is going to be at 85 to 88 as well, maybe even better, and he’s got a good breaking ball as well, and is very competitive. Munday emerged as our go-to guy out there [last year] giving us a chance to win,” added the coach. “He will be around 80 to 85 and throws a breaking ball for a strike. He throws a knuckle ball too instead of a changeup. He has a lot of fun when he plays.”

The still new GHS baseball coach will need a few games to decipher exactly what his hurlers can do and the best way to make them successful. “It’s all about figuring out who’s going to give us our best chance [to win] in conference games.

“If they are pounding the [strike] zone and are competitive and getting guys out, that’s who’s going to pitch, and they know that. They’re all going to get opportunities,” assured the coach. “The sophomore and junior basketball guys are going to be able to give us a lot of depth right out of the gate. They’re going to get opportunities early.”

Mercado was referring to sophomores Aiden Kennon, Hunter Houston, and Dawson Holt, along with juniors Sam Forbus and Jay Wright. All multiple-sport athletes, the three tenth graders may be among the best athletes on the roster, but will get a late start due to basketball.

Kennon was an emerging receiver for the 2020 state champion Bulldogs and Houston was the team’s #2 quarterback. Both are currently playing basketball for Head Coach Donnie Husband. Dawson Holt is the younger brother of Peyton, a three-sport performer at Greenwood, winner of three state titles, and currently playing college baseball.

“He is completely different from Peyton,” explained Mercado. “Dawson is tall and wiry, but a good athlete.” His brother Peyton was supremely talented at baseball and football, and even played basketball for a couple of years, but was shorter and more compact physically.

“All but one of our sophomores on the team right now are in basketball, and all of those guys are going to have a role this year,” Mercado reiterated. “I’m excited for all of them to get in there and contribute. Dawson, Hunter, and Aiden will be fighting for mound time and on the field as position players. They do a really good job and they are some of our best athletes.

As for the other basketball athletes, the coach said, “Jay Wright and Sam Forbus and the junior class are throwing their bullpens or hitting when they can. For them to be able to mix that into their schedule really [shows] they want to be good and help us, and that’s an awesome feeling as a coach.

“We’ll continue to be athletic – bigger, faster, stronger – all that stuff,” he added. “Through that development we’re trying to produce depth beyond our most talented guys. I’m excited top to bottom. We’ll be pretty quick at the top of the lineup. We’ll have some guys that bop a little bit in the middle. Toward the end of the lineup we’ll have guys that can just grind out at bats and turn over the lineup and score runs.”

Probably the most important position player on the diamond for any team is the catcher, and the Bulldogs have two capable candidates behind the plate, junior Dylan Strozier and senior Ethan Clark. As a sophomore, Strozier got a handful of starts last spring before the season was cancelled.

“Dylan will probably be the catcher at the start of the season, but they have both done a great job,” said Mercado. “They are both comparable as hitters, but defense is what we really stress behind the plate. I put a lot on those guys managing the pitching staff. They are going to call their own pitches. I try to give them as much autonomy as I can. Dylan is a great catch, block, throw guy. He’s a very consistent thrower and he likes to get dirty.”

When not pitching, “Matthew Munday will open the year at first base and will probably hit in the middle of the lineup,” said his coach. “He’s a big kid that can pick it [with the glove] and does a great job defensively. He’s a calming presence on our infield and a really heady baseball player. He really gives us stability at first base.

“Reed Carroll and Andrew Elliott will be at second base,” he continued. “I’m two seniors deep there, and Andrew will also play some first base for us. He might [even] find himself in left field. He’s just a gritty baseball player.” Carroll also pitches.

“Shortstop will be between Landry [Jurecka] and [junior] Bryce Morgan. A lot of our defensive alignments will depend on who’s pitching [for us that day]. [Senior] Hayden Weaver has really done a great job solidifying [third base]. Landry might bounce over there as well. The left side of our infield will be some combination of Landry, Bryce, and Hayden.”

The Diamond ‘Dogs are also blessed with a wealth of outfield talent but not enough positions or playing time to go around, according to Mercado. Seniors Chance Eoff and Caden Brown, two of the team’s fastest players, will anchor the outfield defense in center and right, with several players vying for backup roles or playing time in left.

“Chance and Caden have nailed down some combination of those two [positions] between centerfield and rightfield. They’ve done a great job. I couldn’t be happier with those guys. They both want to play centerfield and they give us an opportunity to have a very special outfield.

“Chance is going to pitch and Caden is probably going to start the year hitting leadoff. He’s fast, and he really shines on the bases, [and] Eoff is maybe half-a-step behind him. Our goal offensively is to get those two guys on the bases and let them get after it,” explained the coach.

“Our last spot [in left field] we’ve really had a good battle between Coleton Peyton, Luke Brewer, and Austin Mitchell, a freshman. They are all going to get a chance somehow. Coleton is already going to help us on the mound and Luke and Austin are just really great athletes. It’s a battle. They’re out there competing, and it’s been fun to watch.

As for the competitive nature of his roster, Mercado said, “Being at Greenwood, we’ve got several good athletes, and these guys know they would be on the field for a lot of other schools. You see how hard they work and you wish you could [accommodate] every single guy that deserves playing time.

“But that’s also what’s good about it, because we’ve got guys pushing each other. Nobody can take a day off because we have other guys who can provide positional depth. Our two, three, and four guys have to be just as prepared as our #1 guys,” he explained before talking about his potential batting order.

“Caden will be leading off with Chance batting second. The middle of our lineup will somehow be comprised of Matthew Munday, Landry Jurecka, and Reed Carroll. [But] the six, seven, eight, and nine slots are going to require [some] thought as to where we’re going to put guys – who’s hitting well at the time, moving runners, getting bunts down, and all that stuff. Luke Brewer and Austin Mitchell both run well, so I can see them tapping in [as baserunners], and Luke has done a good job hitting the fastball.”

Regarding his philosophy at the plate, Mercado said, “We preach hitting the ball up the middle and being aggressive on the fastball, and let the power take care of itself. If we do those things, we’ll have some guys run into some balls and hit some doubles and drive in some runs, so it should be fun.”

The coach recently made a change to the team’s 2021 schedule, cancelling a trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama for a tournament, replacing it with a tournament in Central Arkansas, mostly due to concerns over the lingering Covid-19 threat.

“We were still on track to go to Gulf Shores, but decided to pull out to give our schedule the biggest chance at consistency as possible. We’ll face off against Little Rock Catholic, Sylvan Hills, Greene County Tech, and Little Rock Christian, so we’ll get really good games down there (Little Rock). There’s been a lot of [changes] due to the Covid stuff,” he said.

The Bulldogs are slated to open play this coming Thursday at home in a benefit game against the Booneville Bearcats, weather and field conditions permitting. The first pitch is set for 5 p.m. Next week Greenwood hosts Gravette on March 2nd and Fayetteville on March 4th. Both dates next week feature a junior varsity game before the varsity contest.

Most of the ‘Dogs home games are also front-loaded on the schedule. Except for a home doubleheader with Mountain Home on April 20th, six of the team’s last seven varsity play dates will be on the road. And yet they will only play six conference games on the road, doubleheaders at Van Buren, Siloam Springs, and Alma. Eight league games will be at home.

The conference schedule opens on March 9th with a doubleheader at home against Greenbrier. Russellville, Vilonia, and Mountain Home will be the other league foes to visit Greenwood. Notable non-conference games include tilts against Owasso and Red Oak, both Oklahoma schools, Rogers-Heritage (twice), Fort Smith Southside, and Springdale.

“We’re ready to go and I’m excited to play,” said the coach in summary. “The guys are excited to play and see somebody else in a different uniform and get after it. I’ve got athletic kids that do a great job in the classroom and show up every day trying to get better. There’s not a whole lot else I could ask for. We’re really fortunate to be here.”

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