With big win over Lake Hamilton, Bulldogs seem to be peaking at the right time with playoffs ahead

With big win over Lake Hamilton, Bulldogs seem to be peaking at the right time with playoffs ahead

Photos By: TJ Adams

The Greenwood Bulldogs are once again on the rise after last Friday’s dominating performance in a surprising 35-0 win over the Lake Hamilton Wolves, a team ranked #1 in Class 6A for much of the season and unbeaten until a week nine loss to Benton. The top 12 teams now head to the playoffs, but only six of those teams have a legitimate chance to capture a state title – Greenwood, Benton, Lake Hamilton, and Little Rock Parkview from the 6A West plus Jonesboro and El Dorado from the 6A East. The West has dominated the playoffs recently with Greenwood reaching the finals in five of the last six years.

But it’s been a crazy season for 6A football in Arkansas. Back in August the Bulldogs were ranked #1 and were the consensus pick to repeat as state champions. But numerous injuries to key players and a pair of early losses knocked Greenwood from its perennial perch atop the rankings, replaced by Lake Hamilton, beaten by the Bulldogs in the 2020 title game. But over the past three weeks the tide turned in the 6A West conference standings, setting the stage for the playoffs starting next Friday. After their win over the Wolves, the Bulldogs won’t play until November 19th at Smith-Robinson Stadium.

The Benton Panthers (9-1, 7-0) are currently atop the 6A rankings after a pair of one-point victories over both Greenwood (7-3, 5-2) and Lake Hamilton (8-2, 5-2) in the second half of the season. Benton defeated Van Buren last Friday, 42-21, to secure the western conference championship, while Lake Hamilton traveled to Greenwood to do battle for the #2 playoff seed and an opening round bye in the playoffs. It was a huge game for both teams with a lot at stake.

The Bulldogs entered the contest with two goals in mind. They had to win the game to avoid falling to fourth place in the league, and they had to win by a minimum of three points to earn second place, based on the tiebreaking rules set forth by the Arkansas Activities Association. In Greenwood’s favor, the Wolves had never beaten the Bulldogs in six previous meetings. It was also the final regular season home game for Greenwood and the team’s many seniors were honored before kickoff, as were senior spirit group members, along with their families.

Prior to Friday’s contest Head Coach Chris Young was asked about his seniors. “They are not just good ball players, but they are good young men. They’ve had a huge impact on this program and a huge impact on me, and we’re going to miss [those] guys.” The current GHS roster lists more than 25 seniors plus several more senior girls who serve as student trainers.

The gridiron battle was expected to be close, or so most people believed. But a fast start by the GHS offense, coupled with a stellar performance by the home defense, and the Wolves quickly found themselves in a hole from which they could not climb out, given the nature of their methodical, time-consuming, ground-based style of offense.

Just over eight minutes into the game the Bulldogs led 14-0, then 28-0 at the half. The Wolves were never really in the contest, with less than 100 yards of offense in the first half and about the same over the final two quarters. Greenwood’s last touchdown came late in the third quarter and initiated the mercy rule, speeding up the final 14 minutes of play. The win was Greenwood’s fifth in their last six games since starting the season at 2-2.

The ‘Dogs received the opening kick, returned to the Lake Hamilton 47 by L.J. Robins, a 48-yard effort. Quarterback Hunter Houston then threw consecutive passes to senior Luke Brewer reaching the 28, with the second play drawing a flag for a personal foul, moving the ball to the 14. Javon Williamson then carried to the 12 and Houston to the 7-yard-line before Williamson powered his way to the one before scoring on the next snap. The kick by Ben Moy made it 7-0 at the 10:37 mark.

On defense, Greenwood gave up a pair of rushing first downs on the Wolves’ first possession but forced a punt to the GHS 37. From there the Bulldogs began their second scoring drive that started with consecutive runs by Williamson to the visitors’ 46. Houston passed to Aiden Kennon two plays later, reaching the 39, then ran a QB keeper, but a holding penalty moved the ball back to the 36. Next, Williamson ripped off a 19-yard gain to the 17 for a first down.

Houston then connected with L.J. Robins at the 12-yard-line before Williamson and Houston alternated carrying the ball over the next four snaps, with the GHS junior running back getting his second touchdown from three yards out. The extra point try by Moy was good (3:50) and the Bulldogs had the Wolves cornered early, down by two touchdowns.

A trio of punts followed at the end of the next three possessions, two by Lake Hamilton and one by Greenwood as the game moved into the second period. But with just under eight minutes left the Wolves punted and Aiden Kennon fielded the kick for Greenwood and had a short return to the home 37-yard-line. Seven plays later the Bulldogs scored again.

On first down, Houston passed downfield to Robins at the Lake Hamilton 47, before the GHS quarterback kept the ball for a short gain to the 50. A dump pass to Robins on the right side netted a big gain as the shifty sophomore receiver weaved his way to the 29. The same play to the left side was good for 12 yards to the 17 and a first down. Senior Cameron Krone then rumbled to the 5-yard-line, and again to the one, setting up Houston’s diving effort over the pile and into the end zone. The extra point was good (5:49) and the Bulldogs were firmly in control, leading 21-0.

The Wolves desperately needed something good to happen on offense before the half ended, but after picking up a first down at their own 47, the wheels came off their possession quickly, starting with a QB sack by Greenwood senior defensive lineman Cameron Dehart for a big loss. A procedure penalty followed and soon Lake Hamilton was forced to punt the ball away with 2:08 remaining before halftime.

As it turned out, the Bulldogs needed only 1:26 to score their fourth touchdown and essentially put the game away before the intermission. From the GHS 24, Houston ran to the 26 then passed to Luke Brewer to the 41 and again to Robins, who juked his way to the Lake Hamilton 33. Junior receiver Tanner McKusker then caught Houston’s deep pass inside the 10-yard-line before falling just short of the end zone at the one. After senior running back Dylan Tucker entered the game, he scored the touchdown on the next play. Moy’s kick made it 28-0 at the break.

The visitors received the opening kickoff of the second half, but again could not solve the GHS defense. After picking up a pair of first downs and crossing the midfield stripe into Greenwood territory, the Wolves failed on a fourth down pass, giving the ball up on downs at the home 35-yard-line. But after a nice drive of ten plays, the ‘Dogs fumbled the ball into the end zone, recovered by Lake Hamilton for a touchback.

But the turnover only delayed the inevitable. Just over two minutes later, after another Wolves’ punt, Greenwood was back in possession of the ball and driving for another touchdown, making quick work of it. From the GHS 47, Houston passed to Brewer to the Lake Hamilton 43, followed by a loss to the 44. But on the next snap the Bulldogs executed a perfect screen pass to Aiden Kennon, who picked up some blocking and raced all the way for the score. Moy’s kick came at the 2:39 mark of the third quarter and represented the last point of the game.

With the mercy rule in play, the final 14-plus minutes sailed by quickly. The only notable action came when Greenwood linebacker Evan Williams picked off a Wolves’ pass at the GHS 11 to help preserve the shutout with two minutes remaining. As a bonus the GHS coaching staff was able to rest some starters in the fourth quarter and reward the reserves with some well-deserved playing time.

“Offensively, we were really good tonight,” said Head Coach Chris Young after the win. “We lost our running back (Williamson) early and had to change our game plan a little bit, but I thought our quarterback (Houston) played [well], and our offensive line and receivers played [well]. I was really, really happy offensively.

“With the offense [Lake Hamilton] runs, if you can get them behind it gives you an advantage, and we were able to do that. We were efficient tonight. Not perfect, but really efficient. We won the line-of-scrimmage. Our linebackers played downhill. Our special teams were good too. I was really proud of all three phases [of our game],” said Young.

As for the severity of Williamson’s injury, Young added, “I think he’s alright. He was on the sideline. We just held him out as a precautionary measure.” Greenwood has already suffered the loss of its #1 running back when Jake Glover was sidelined with a season-ending injury last month, so Williamson, Cameron Krone, and Dylan Tucker are key to Greenwood’s future success this season.

“We talked all week about our preparation, and I thought it was great,” added Young. “The young guys on our scout team gave us a great look at the offense [Lake Hamilton] runs. The coaches worked their tails off. Our offensive and defensive coordinators did a great job preparing our kids, and we thought there was a chance this could happen tonight.

Asked about the back-to-back shutouts over Van Buren and Lake Hamilton, Young said, “We talked to our kids at halftime about that. They hadn’t given up a point in six quarters and I asked them why would we start now? They just continue to do what they do. We are getting better [defensively], and if we continue to get better, good things are going to happen. We took care of our own business tonight, so we’re going to enjoy this one for a couple days, then we’re going to work.”

Asked about the ebb and flow of the season and Greenwood’s late resurgence, Young said, “We knew all along. We had some guys out and got beat [early] by a couple good football teams (Ft. Smith Northside and Little Rock Parkview). The key is to improve every week, and we have done that the last four weeks. We’re just going to put all our focus on the next game and get ready for those guys.”

That next game will be at home on November 19th against either Sylvan Hills of the 6A East or Mountain Home of the 6A West. Those two teams tangle next Friday with the winner advancing to play the Bulldogs in the quarterfinals. Earlier this season Greenwood hosted and soundly defeated Mountain Home, 31-7. The Bombers (3-7) are the #6 seed from the West while the Sylvan Hills Bears (7-3) are the #3 seed from the East.

Other first-round games include Little Rock Parkview (W4) hosting the Searcy Lions (E5), the Marion Patriots (E4) hosting the Russellville Cyclones (W5), and Lake Hamilton (W3) welcoming the Blue Devils of West Memphis (E6). Teams that received a first-round bye include #1 seeds Benton and Jonesboro (7-3) and #2 seeds Greenwood and El Dorado (8-2). The 6A state title game will be at noon in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium on Saturday, December 4th.

At the risk of sounding overconfident, the Bulldogs do appear to be on the soft side of the playoff bracket. The only two teams that seem to offer much of a threat are Jonesboro and Parkview. However, Jonesboro just lost to fourth place Marion in the East and Greenwood’s earlier loss at Parkview was under less-than-ideal circumstances. Four key Bulldogs were out due to injuries, including their starting quarterback, #2 running back, and two starting defensive linemen.

Marion, West Memphis, and Searcy all have losing records at 4-6 overall. Sylvan Hills has a winning record at 7-3 but not an impressive resume of victories. All seven of their wins were against teams with losing records and they were beaten in week one by Class 5A Maumelle that also finished under .500 this season.

The bottom half of the bracket features three powerhouse teams including Benton, Lake Hamilton, and El Dorado, with a combined five losses between them, any one of them capable of running the table and winning the championship. Whichever team survives the top half of the bracket and reaches the finals will face only one of the three teams mentioned above, the other two having already been eliminated. But the games are still played on the field, not on paper.

Also of note, 2021 represents the 26th consecutive season the Bulldogs have qualified for post-season play, ranking among the top programs in the state in that regard. Greenwood last missed the playoffs in 1995, Ronnie Peacock’s second year as head coach and the senior season for Aaron Gamble, who played quarterback on that team which finished 7-3 overall but missed the post-season due to a tiebreaking technicality.

Coach Peacock later led the Bulldogs to their first state title in 2000 and laid the foundation for the school’s incredible run of success that continued under successive head coaches Harv Welch (2001-03) and especially Rick Jones (2004-19), who added eight additional state titles at Greenwood. Coach Young mentored under Jones and won a state championship in his first season as Top Dog in 2020. Sadly, Aaron Gamble died last June in a tragic auto accident shortly after being named as the new high school principal at Greenwood. His son, Landry, a sophomore, was also killed in the accident.

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