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Diamond ‘Dogs Prepared for Another Successful Season
Head coach Randy Gardner has continued to produce winning baseball teams in his six years at Greenwood, including a trip to the 6A title game last spring. Despite losing most of his starting lineup to graduation, Gardner has high hopes for 2014 as well. (Photo courtesy of thegreenwooddogpound.com)

Diamond ‘Dogs Prepared for Another Successful Season

By Richard White

The Diamond ‘Dogs saw the state title slip away from them in last year’s championship game after a late rally by Jonesboro. But with the bitter ending to the 2013 season now a distant memory, the Greenwood Bulldogs’ baseball team is preparing for another run at the 6A state title.

Head coach Randy Gardner has a string of five consecutive conference titles to his credit since coming to Greenwood six years ago, and despite a shortage of starting varsity experience, his Bulldogs are not lacking in athletic talent and winning tradition. Gardner expects another stellar season.

“We have one full-time starter back, at catcher, senior Michael Nelson,” said Gardner in a recent interview. “Last year we only had two starters back, so it doesn’t mean the end of the world, but it does make you have to work a little bit harder. And the first half of the season is much more of a process than it is a finished product.

“In previous years, from the outset, we were good, and we knew we were good. We weren’t finding our way. But last year for half of the season we didn’t really play that [well], then we figured out what we were doing and we picked it up and went [to the state finals],” he added.

“We have a couple of guys that have experience playing varsity – Chris Sunde, Tanner Cooper, Jake Herrel, and Michael Rhea. We have some people that got some playing time last year, like Jonathon Clemons, but they were spot players and weren’t full-time starters.”

So there is plenty of competition for jobs, says Gardner, “and the weather hasn’t been very good to help us figure it out. I think we have about 10 or 12 games the first three weeks of the season, and that will help a lot in figuring out where we’re at and what adjustments we need to make.”

As for the 2014 schedule, it’s still loaded with tough competition from mostly bigger schools. “It’s still [mostly] all 7A schools,” said the coach. “We’re going to play in the Northwest Arkansas Best Sports Tournament, which is all big schools, and we’re also going to Edmond (OK) during spring break and play some good schools from the OKC area. I think we only have two or three smaller classification schools, and that’s it. But our conference is tough, so we had better not take too many days off.”

Of course, in baseball, pitching is always the name of the game, and that’s once major area of concern for the Bulldogs. “It’s the one thing we need to work the most on,” said Gardner. “We have some guys working hard at it, but we’re not where we need to be yet. This year we don’t really have much pitching experience. Chris Sunde and Jake Herrel have some varsity experience from last year. But about the last eight pitchers we’ve had are all pitching in college, and we don’t have that kind of pitching.

“We have guys that need to hit their spots and throw strikes. We don’t need to walk people and we better not make errors. The rest of the game, defensively and offensively, we’re just as good as last year, I feel like. But we’ve got to make sure we get something done on the mound,” said the coach.

As for the character of this year’s squad, Gardner envisions a good mix of team speed, high average hitters, and some power. “We do have some guys that can run. Michael Rhea is really fast. We have Jake Freeman, who plays outfield, is really fast. Garrett Smith can run and Tanner Chapple. We have some guys that can play that have good speed, so we’re going to try and make stuff happen.

“We have a few guys – Nelson, Sunde, and Kyler Watson – that can hit the ball over the fence. But outside of that, we’ve got more athletic kids that we’re going to depend on to put the ball in play and use their legs,” said the head coach.

Regarding defense up the middle, an absolute essential ingredient for any winning team, Gardner is confident he has found his guys. “Tanner Cooper has transitioned to short. He’s bigger and stronger and a lot more consistent. He played third a lot for us last year and would play short when [Hayden] Harvey pitched. That experience has really helped him. He’s taken charge out there at short and that’s one [infield] position we know about. He’s going to be out there when he’s not pitching.

At other [spots] everybody is all new, and you don’t know until you get there sometimes. We have a lot of competition going on and people are pretty even, so if [they] don’t get the job done for a couple of games, we’ll switch gears and go in another direction,” said Gardner.

“We have a couple of guys at second. Michael Rhea did a good job for us in the state tournament last year, and he’s at second. Jake Freeman (center) moved in from Van Buren and he’s really fast, and we’re looking at him at the top of the lineup too. He’s only played outfield for a couple of years, but we like his speed. I think he’ll do a good job as long as he hits. Garrett Smith is going to be our move-around guy. He’s real athletic. He can play outfield or infield (second).

“Ty Wyckoff is pretty good in right. He’s probably our best fundamental defensive outfielder, and right field is the hardest one to play here. Jonathon Clemons, a senior, has looked pretty good in left. Tanner Chappel was out four or five weeks with a broken hand, but since he’s come back he’s looked good,” said the coach.

As for Greenwood tradition in baseball, Gardner said, “The kids know how to win. They’ve been on good teams. I’ve been here six years. We didn’t win the conference the first year, but since then, no matter what conference we’re in, we’ve won it. That’s all we know how to do. All good things come to an end. But I don’t think we want to be that team that broke the streak. But baseball is a quirky sport. Even if you’re better than somebody, you don’t win as much as you do in other sports.”

Gardner and his staff are counting on that tradition and his team’s overall athleticism to come through for another winning campaign. They also need some leadership, which usually comes from the senior class, yet there are only five seniors counted among the nearly 40 names on the roster.

“To the seniors, it seems to mean a little more to them, because this is the end,” said the coach. “It kind of automatically creates some leadership.”

Weather permitting, the Bulldogs’ were slated to open their non-conference schedule this week with a home game against Springdale this past Tuesday, before getting an early start on conference play at home against Little Rock Parkview on Friday, with varsity and junior varsity games to start at 5 p.m.

 

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