Chad Mercado was hired last spring as head coach of the GHS baseball team. But it didn’t take long for the former Beebe head coach to see that the Bulldogs were loaded with potential.
“I recognized pretty early that we’ve got a lot of really good baseball players,” said the new coach. “I feel like nobody is going to be able to compete with us 1-12,” referring to his top players.
“We’re incredibly long [deep]. Our positional competition has been great. They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do. It’s been good. I tell everyone how easy it is to coach and teach at Greenwood because of the caliber of kids we have,” said Mercado.
“We have talent and experience. We have pitching depth,” he added, even after losing junior Landry Jurecka to a freak ACL injury. According to Mercado, Jurecka would have been the team’s third baseman and quite probably its opening day starting pitcher as well.
“We’ve had a good program here for a long time, but when you have a coaching change you’re going to have some philosophical things [the players] aren’t comfortable with,” explained the coach, adding that those kinks have already been ironed out.
The Diamond ‘Dogs new skipper took a break from working on the GHS baseball field to give this interview and offered his thoughts about the school’s facilities for baseball.
“I think of [our field] as the front porch of the high school, and I want the front porch to look really good,” he said. “I’m a big believer in anything we can do to make the kids feel confident and be a reflection of what our program is, and I think it starts with the field and how we maintain it. It trickles into how we practice and prepare, and ultimately how we play.
“The thing that stands out the most is our fence. There’s not a lot of fences in high school baseball in Arkansas that look like our fence. Whether it’s the championships in the middle or the signs and our great sponsorships.
“The community really supports our program. Our dugouts are fantastic. I don’t know how many programs in the state have volunteers who will paint the dugouts on their day off, but we do. I’ll put our field up against anybody.”
Reminded that his 2020 Bulldogs no longer have superstar players like Connor Noland and Peyton Holt, both of which are playing collegiate baseball now, the new head coach didn’t show any concern.
“We’ve got guys that I think are going to have huge years. If I single out one guy – I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on anybody,” he admitted.
“But the guy that’s been the easiest to pencil in is probably [center fielder] Colton Sagely. He and Chance Eoff have been starting for three years now. They work hard and I’m excited to see what kind of [senior] year they have.
“Landon Karnes has been a starter and he’s really developed in the fall. He’s doing a lot of good things. He’s a team guy. He’s been very open and accommodating,” said Mercado, a reference to Karnes’ versatility.
“Matthew Munday started last year as a freshman,” the coach continued. “Anywhere I’ve put him he has excelled. It’s going to be fun having him on the field. He’s going to hit in the middle of our lineup.”
Early in the season Mercado sees seniors Jace Presley and Preston Jurecka splitting time at first base. “Jace is back, and we’ll count on him big time on the mound and at first base. Preston Jurecka is going to play first base and outfield for us.
A trio of good gloves are vying for time at second base, including juniors Hayden Weaver and Andrew Elliott, along with sophomore Bryce Morgan. All three are capable athletes who will see a lot of playing time all over the diamond.
Reed Carroll, a junior who played behind Peyton Holt the last two years, will likely get the nod at shortstop. His coach described him as having “good arm strength and good hands.” Offensively he can also put a charge in the ball.
At third base several players could help cover the hot corner, including Weaver, Carroll, Morgan, and junior Matthew Munday, who will also see time on the pitcher’s mound.
But according to the new GHS head coach, the toughest thing to figure out has been the Bulldogs’ outfield rotation, having to choose between so many talented athletes and finding playing time for all who deserve it.
“We’ve got five or six guys that would be starters just about everywhere else in the state,” said their coach. “They’re top-notch. [Junior] Caden Brown and [senior] Landon Karnes are going to see the majority of the innings in left.
“Whenever Brown is in left, Sagely in center and Eoff in right, I can’t imagine anyone having a faster outfield than us. We’re looking forward to seeing that on a regular basis,” said Mercado.
Behind the plate the Diamond ‘Dogs have two very capable players in Munday and sophomore Dylan Strozier. Munday is new to the backstop position, while Strozier, though a year younger, is the more experienced catcher. That means Strozier had to unlearn some things to get in tune with Mercado’s philosophy on catching.
“Dylan has really adapted and grown quickly this year,” said his coach. “Those guys are prepared because we’ve done some classroom things. They will call their own game. We don’t call the pitches [from the bench],” Mercado revealed.
As for pitching talent, the Bulldogs appear to be loaded with depth and quality with Presley leading the way. He also played quarterback in football. But there are plenty more arms lined up behind him, whether as starters or relievers.
Mercado also said his pitching philosophy is simple – pitch to contact early in the count and let the defense do its job behind the pitcher.
“He’s a fastball, changeup, slider kind of pitcher,” said Mercado of Presley. “Munday lives at the bottom of the strike zone and has done a good job in intersquad games. [Senior] Cade Shrum hasn’t pitched a lot, but we’re going to depend on him a lot this year. Everything he throws moves and he throws a lot of strikes.”
Shortstop Reed Carroll could also see time on the mound as a reliever. “He’s got a nice fastball that sneaks up on [hitters] and his secondary stuff is really good too.” But the only southpaw in the bunch is Chance Eoff, who will get a long look as a relief pitcher when not playing outfield.
“He’s a really nice left-handed pitcher,” said Mercado. “I just want to be careful with him because he’s got a screw in his elbow,” referring to the senior’s surgically repaired throwing arm.
“Landon [Karnes] is going to help us on the mound,” he added. “I feel good about our relievers. We’ve got a couple of younger guys that are going to get innings [too].”
“I’ve got a lot of guys I’m excited about. We can’t wait to play,” said the first year GHS head coach before describing his basic philosophy of the game.
“I want them to play free and loose and have as much fun as possible. The less we [coaches] do the more fun they will have. I want them to play aggressively. I want them to get dirty and have fun. I want them to be thinking about baseball. Our job is to set the expectations [and] set them up for success,” said Mercado.
The Bulldogs clearly have talent, experience, depth, versatility, quality pitching, and solid batsmen up and down the lineup. But there’s one more component to this year’s squad that’s worth its weight in gold – speed!
“Our first three guys (Brown, Eoff, Sagely) are really fast,” said the coach. “They really get down the line. On their worst run they’re 4.3 (seconds) out of the box, which is major league average running speed. They all steal bases. They all can bunt and hit.” The Bulldogs’ brain trust plans to put that speed to good use this season.
“We’ve talked a lot about ‘hunting’ on the basepaths this year,” said Mercado, or taking the extra base or the next base. “I want [them] to steal more bases on their own than what we give them signs for. We want to be aggressive to get to third base [with less than two outs.]
“I’m not a hit-and-run guy, but we’ll delay steal with some slower guys,” he explained. “We’ll apply pressure on the defense. We want [our baserunners] to be able to read [the situation] and run the bases instinctively. We’re fast and that’s fun to watch.”
Regarding his team’s obvious versatility, Mercado said, “That’s something I identified when I first got here. The more versatile we are the easier my job gets when I make out the lineup.
“I told the players, ‘If you are versatile, your chance of getting in the lineup goes up, because if you are hitting, I can find a place for you [defensively].’ We try to make our lineup as versatile as possible.”
As for the competition this season, Mercado knows the 5A West conference well from his time at Beebe, and it won’t be easy. “I know it’s going to be a fight every time we’re out here. In our conference there’s always going to be a good team left out of the state tournament. We’ve got big time talent.
“But we have every intention of competing at the highest level possible,” he said, identifying Greenwood, Greenbrier, Vilonia, Little Rock Christian, and Russellville as the teams to watch in conference play.
Finally, Mercado was asked to size up some of the younger talent in the program, including the incoming freshmen, many of which have just recently joined the team after basketball season.
“The guy that’s really earned a lot of consideration is [freshman] Harrison Adams. He was the smallest guy at our tryouts, but his baseball [skills] were really good. His aptitude is off the charts. It’ll be fun to have him for the next four years. There’s [also] some really nice, mature talent in the freshman class.”