The Greenwood Bulldogs’ roundball program is entering a new era under the leadership of Billy (B.J.) Ross, who was hired as head coach last spring. Ross left his dream job as head coach of his hometown Charleston Tigers to accept the challenge of bringing the GHS boys’ basketball program back to prominence. Titletown’s newest head coach is 47 years old and the married father of a seventh-grade son (Ryan) and two older siblings (Brayden and Rilee) attending the U of A in Fort Smith. His wife, Marsha, is now also a teacher at Greenwood. As for his teaching responsibilities, Ross will be proctoring two concurrent college classes online through UA-Fort Smith.
Ross is the team’s third head coach in nine seasons, succeeding Donnie Husband (2018-23) and Greg Nichols (2015-18), both of whom were quality coaches from Oklahoma, where Husband won two state titles. Yet the Bulldogs have finished at .500 or above just twice in the last ten years, so the path ahead will not be an easy one.
The resignation of Husband and the hiring of Ross took place during the transition between departing athletic director Dustin Smith and the installment of GHS head football coach Chris Young as the new A.D. Assistant Superintendent Kevin Hesslen spearheaded the search for a new coach and didn’t take long to settle on Ross, who began his official duties on May 1st, overlapping Coach Husband by a month, allowing the two men to visit extensively about the program. “Coach Husband is a great guy, and we had some long talks. He loved these kids,” said Ross.
This is also not the first time Ross has coached at Greenwood, serving as an assistant for one season to former Lady Bulldogs’ head coach Amy Brush and working for two months with her replacement and current head coach Clay Reeves. That was over 20 years ago before Ross got the call from Charleston and happily returned to his boyhood home, where he coached both girls and boys. At first, he coached girls at Charleston, posting an impressive record of 137-30.
He then stepped away from coaching for four years as an assistant principal before returning to the bench as the varsity boys’ head coach, going 235-91 over 11 years. He also took the Tigers to seven state semifinals and two state finals, coming up short in both games. “We had a chance [almost] every year,” he said. Ross began his head coaching career at tiny Plainview, Arkansas, a Class B school. His career coaching record was 461-155 over 19 seasons before coming to Greenwood.
Yet every Bulldogs’ basketball coach has faced the same daunting issue over the past two decades, and that’s the perception that Greenwood High School is football only when it comes to boys’ athletics. Ten state gridiron championships in the last 23 years and numerous other appearances in the title game will leave that impression.
But while the perception is not strictly true – GHS athletics has won several state championships in other male or mixed gender sports over the last 30 years – it is true that football annually restricts the availability of some of the school’s top male athletes for basketball due to the overlap between the two seasons.
The problem is not unique to Greenwood, but very few schools have enjoyed the gridiron success of the Bulldogs in recent years, reaching the state championship game in seven of the last eight years with a great chance to do so again this year. The result can leave some of the district’s best athletes physically exhausted or mentally and emotionally drained and in need of a break. At the very least, for those footballers who come out for basketball, it limits their practice time and puts them at a disadvantage early in the season, forcing them to catch up to their basketball only peers and foes.
But it’s an issue Coach Ross also dealt with at Charleston, because Tigers’ football has traditionally been one of the best small school gridiron programs in Arkansas for a long time, winning their fair share of state championships. But according to Ross, it’s spring baseball that’s even more of a rival for athletes than football. His solution – don’t fight it. Embrace it!
“The kids at Charleston are not that different from Greenwood,” said the new GHS head coach. “That’s part of what attracted me to Greenwood. This is just on a larger scale. [Charleston] is a football crazed town, and I grew up there and I understand it. You’ve got to know the culture and what you’re getting in to. You better embrace it and just love on it. You’ve got to be mindful of all the other sports. When you show that you respect and care about the other programs, they will reciprocate and that’s how you start sharing athletes.”
That approach worked well at Charleston, with Ross and his teams going deep into the playoffs almost every year, and that same philosophy has already potentially reaped benefits at Greenwood. Among the 23 players listed on the Bulldogs’ roster, several are football players who have at least verbally committed to play basketball after not participating last season. Many of them played in junior high, but did not participate as sophomores or juniors, for whatever reason.
Of course, it remains to be seen how many of them really show up in early December, but some of them are among the school’s top male athletes – players like Kane Archer, Brady Mackey, Landon Nelms, and Isaiah Arrington – all starters in football. Archer is a sophomore and the team’s highly recruited starting quarterback. Arrington is a junior and a speedy receiver, while both Mackey and Nelms are senior defensive backs.
“Landon’s family is from Charleston, so I’ve had a connection with him since he was born,” said Ross of Nelms. “The first thing I did when I got over here was find him, because I knew how good of an athlete he was. He was a real good player in the ninth grade but hasn’t played the last couple of years. Except for Peyton Presson, who was injured, all the other [football players] came out to our camps. I just asked them to give me their June, then after the dead period they go to football. We have an open gym, but there’s nothing mandatory. So they came to our eight June days that we can have legally.”
While their basketball skills may be a bit rusty from inactivity, their physical ability and athleticism are beyond question and will instantly make the basketball team better. It’s the job of Ross and assistant coach Dexter Pearcy to quickly whip them into basketball shape and integrate them with the other players who’ve been practicing for months and starting in their early season games. The goal is to have them up to speed and ready for conference play in January.
“Coach Pearcy has been unbelievable,” said Ross of his assistant. “He really knows the kids and all the little things, and he does a great job coaching.” Ross also praised the good work of junior high coaches Mike Possage and Ryan Casalman, the latter of which Ross encouraged to return to Greenwood with him. “We’ve got a great office [and staff],” he added.
But other footballers are also expected to come out, including last year’s starting point guard, star receiver L.J. Robins. Fellow senior Peyton Presson (6’2”, 190), a former starter in both sports, is finally healthy, and junior receiver Scott Holland is expected to contribute as well. Senior defensive lineman Brenden Chick (6’3”, 215) and sophomore offensive lineman Cody Johnson (6’4”, 230) are also likely to add their sizable presence to the team.
Should all or most of these players come out for basketball as hoped, the GHS starting lineup and bench will be much stronger and deeper than in recent years. At this point, Robins is the only footballer projected to start in basketball, likely joined by senior Braden Bollman, the team’s leading scorer so far this season, forming a solid and experienced nucleus to build around. Returning juniors Jayden Garnes and Lane Philpot have played well in the early going and are expected to make solid contributions this season with other potential surprises as the season unfolds.
The seniors on the Bulldogs’ early season roster include Mackey, Presson, Robins, Chick, Bollman, Nelms, and Christian Wheeler. The juniors are Garnes, Philpot, Holland, Caleb Burnette, Lawson Cranor, Silas Spicer, and Arrington. The team’s largest class are the sophomores, including Archer, Johnson, Blake Christiansen, Hudson Clark, Jeremiah Dasher, Jakson Overton, Logan Thessing, Josh Wright, and Sean Jackson.
Asked about his starting lineup once all the pieces are in place, Coach Ross couldn’t say beyond the obvious two mentioned above, Robins and Bollman. “It’s hard to project,” admitted the coach. “We’ve got a kid like Brady Mackey. That dude can shoot it. He’s an unbelievable shooter and he didn’t play last year. I haven’t seen Peyton Presson play [live] at all because he was hurt last summer. But I’ve seen him on film, and I love what I see.
“They all had a great summer,” Ross continued. “But the thing is, we may have a different starting lineup every [game]. We’ve got eight or nine kids that I feel like can fill a gap and do different things based on who we are playing. Brenden Chick had a great summer and he’s a big kid at 6’5”. We’ve had a good pre-season with the basketball only kids. Braden Bollman’s had a great pre-season. We’re 2-2 and getting great minutes out of kids that I believe will be starters next year. They will get a lot of junior varsity time this year. We have some kids with some really good upside.”
As for his offensive style of play, Ross said, “We want to play fast and we have goals we want to meet, like how many shots we want to take. I’ve always believed that the more shots you take the more you make. I couldn’t come in here and be so totally structured [offensively] because of football. We don’t have enough time. We must find a style that’s an easy transition where [football] players can use their athletic ability and hope we’ve prepared our basketball only kids well enough that they can mesh. We want to play a faster pace and get 55 shots or more per game, and we’ve hit that three of four games already. I’ve been that way my whole career, and it’s a fun brand of basketball. We’ve been shooting it really well.
“Kids don’t want to pass the ball 13 times,” he continued. “Every day we shot 100s of shots. Why would we want to limit that in the game? We want to be confident shooters. We need to let their athletic ability take over instead of running too many set plays and making them think. Let them be athletes,” said the coach.
“It’s controlled chaos, but there is a rhyme and a reason for what we do. There is a method to the madness. We practice and work what we want to do, and I feel like we will have three or four [scorers] on the floor at all times. We want to be balanced. We’re not going to be a one trick pony. Right now, Bollman is our go-to guy, but when we get everybody over here, I really don’t know. It may be somebody different every night. I’m still learning their personalities and tendencies.”
Defensively, Ross will employ a man-to-man style most of the time, and playing good defense is the best way to earn playing time in his book. “If you guard like crazy, I’m not going to yell at you on the offensive end,” he said. “We’ve played all man in the pre-season. We will play some 1-3-1 zone, but we like to play a physical man defense and get up on people and be the aggressor. We’re going to try to use our athletic ability in the best way.”
As for the 5A West conference, Ross is still trying to get up to speed on the opposition. Greenwood won only one conference game last season, and the new coach definitely wants to improve on that. “I’ve been watching a lot of film from last year, and that’s where Coach Pearcy is such a good resource,” he said. “It’s a good league. Russellville and Van Buren probably have some of the better athletes. But we want to be optimistic. If we execute and do what we need to do, I feel like the league is set up pretty good for us. I think athletically, we’ll be fine.”
Concluding the interview with a question about his transition to the new job, new school, and new town, Ross answered, “The people of Greenwood have been great. Some of the coaches and teachers are still here [from 20 years ago], and Mr. [John] Ciesla and Mr. Hesslen have been great. We’ve got great administrators and principals. They are all very accommodating to anything we need, and that’s a breath of fresh air.” Ross also praised Chris Young as the district’s new athletic director. “He wants every sport to be good. Not for one minute do I regret leaving my home and coming over here. It feels like these are my people. It feels natural.”
In his mind, Ross has set realistic expectations for his first team at Greenwood – winning more than one conference game for example. “It’s hard to say what a realistic win-loss total would be,” he said. “I hope we will be competitive every game. Obviously, I hope we’re in the mix to get one of those playoff spots. This year is a foundation-builder, and that’s what I tell the players. They need to set a tone for the kids behind them. If we get in the right flow and mix, I think we’ve got a chance to win some games. We’d love to get to the 10-win mark [overall] or even .500 in the conference.
“We’ve [also] got to win the ones [at home] that we can win,” a reference to defending H.B. Stewart Arena. “That will be huge. But these kids are on a strong foundation. I didn’t have to come in here and change the work culture,” he said. So welcome to Greenwood, Coach Ross. We wish you and your players great success this year and in years to come.