GREENWOOD, Ark. — There’s essentially a no-hitter waiting to happen each time Connor Noland starts on the mound for Greenwood (Ark.) High School.
Noland, a Class of 2018 Arkansas baseball and football commit, caught a tough break in his last bid to accomplish such a feat. Pitching with one out in the third inning, the right-hander had Russellville (Ark.) High School hitless when he gave up an infield single.
The ball didn’t travel more than 15 feet from home plate. It was only in play because it first ricocheted off the hitter’s lower leg in the batter’s box. Noland nor his Greenwood teammates made a serious attempt to field the ball, obviously assuming it would be called foul.
It didn’t necessarily cost Noland a no-hitter as Russellville went on to record 4 more hits the rest of the way. But that was impossible to know in the moment, and it could have been a result-changing ruling in what was a scoreless game.
So, it would have been understandable, even expected, to see Noland show some frustration. Maybe throw his arms in the air or direct words toward the umpire.
He did no such thing. Quite the opposite, actually. Noland simply shrugged his shoulders, smiled and toed the rubber to face the next hitter.
“Yeah, that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” Noland said about the hit postgame.
There are no complaints from Noland, who would throw a complete game in the 3-1 win on May 4. There’s never any pointing fingers at coaches, teammates, umpires or opponents.
Noland is also never one to brag or take credit without first giving some to his teammates. These are admirable traits for a 4-star quarterback recruit and pitching prospect with so much ability he’ll almost certainly be selected in the 2018 MLB Draft.
“It’s the way he’s been raised,” his father, Frank Noland, told SEC Country in a phone interview. “That’s what we expect out of all of our children. You go out and you do your best, leave it all out there on the field and you don’t talk about it. You go show people what you can do and let them talk about it.”
Such values are paramount to the tight-knit Noland family. They are equally important within the Greenwood community. That’s part of the reason Connor and his older brother Peyton, now a sophomore defensive end at Lyon College, returned to the Western Arkansas town of just over 9,000 to attend high school.
A return to Greenwood
Frank and his wife, Angie, grew up in Greenwood and graduated from the high school in 1992. They now live in Reno, Nev., with their two younger children.
Connor was born in Fort Smith, Ark., and lived in Greenwood as a child. The family relocated to Florida, then Reno, where Connor spent his early teenage years.
Once it came time for him to enter high school, a plan was put in place for Connor to return to Arkansas.
“(Greenwood) has the small town, hometown feel,” Frank Noland said. “They always say it takes a village to raise these children and there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s many people that I had grown up with, gone to school with or that coached me or were my teachers are still there in the Greenwood system. That made a tremendous difference for me.”
Connor has been back in Greenwood since the second semester of his freshman year. The distance from his parents and younger siblings is tough, but he remains surrounded by family.
He lives with his grandparents on his mother’s side. Frank’s mother and stepdad live a couple miles down the road. There are aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews in the area.
“We’re very fortunate with our situation being able to send both the boys back,” Frank said. “We’re very fortunate to have the family back there. It’s a unique situation, but it felt right. It’s one of those things that has worked out quite well all in all.”
Constant balancing act
The move back to Greenwood came as it was becoming apparent Connor could develop into a special athlete.
He’s been just that on the mound and the gridiron for the Bulldogs. So much so he hasn’t thought of giving up one sport for the other anytime soon and plans to try both with the Razorbacks.
Connor is 7-1 with a 0.41 earned run average this season. He’s struck out 78 and only surrendered 7 walks. As a quarterback, he passed for more than 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns while helping lead the Bulldogs to the state championship game in 2016.
The balance between the sports isn’t easy, though, even in high school. He maintains a certain level of dual training year-round.
Greenwood baseball coach Trey Holloway and football coach Rick Jones are in regular contact to keep Connor from being overworked. On days he throws at football practice, he won’t do so with a baseball. If he’s pitching the next day, he’ll avoid throwing a football.
“It’s tough,” Connor said. “I’m not one that backs away from a challenge, though. I like it. I’m a competitive person and I’m always looking to do something that’s hard to do.”
Holloway is very familiar with the path Noland has taken to this point. A former Razorbacks pitcher (2002-2006), Holloway was once a quarterback and pitcher at Booneville (Ark.) High School. He led the school to state titles in football and baseball as a senior, a feat Noland hopes to accomplish next year.
“Connor has done a great job of being able to balance it going to football camps or baseball camps,” Holloway said. “It’s hard whenever you have as much pub and 4-stars and all those rankings and stuff like that. But he’s done great job.”
Holloway also believes Noland has what it takes to continue balancing both sports at the U of A. It’ll take Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema and baseball coach Dave Van Horn working together to develop a plan, something they’ve already told Connor they’re more than willing to do.
“He’s going to come off football season, he’s going to throw four or five bullpens and be ready,” Holloway said. “It’s not like he’s been up there playing defensive back. He’s throwing a football every single day, so his arm is going to be in shape, he’s going to be conditioned, he’s going to be lifting weights and all those things. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for him.”
Still, Connor and his support system remain realistic about the challenge ahead. Everyone is in agreement if one sport begins to have a significant negative impact on the other, a decision must be made. But it won’t be any time soon. And if all works out it won’t be while he’s at Arkansas, either.
“I feel like if anyone was going to do it, he has the makeup to do it,” Holloway said.
Leaning on Barry Lunney Jr.
Connor has built a strong relationship with Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr., who is the Razorbacks’ primary in-state recruiter.
The ties between the two are deep. Lunney went to elementary school with Connor’s parents while Barry Lunney Sr. was the football coach at Greenwood.
“We were on the same little league football team and baseball team for many years,” Frank recalled. “If he was the starter I was the closer, and if I was the starter he was the closer. We played a lot of basketball, baseball, football, you name it together when we were kids.”
Lunney himself has done precisely what Connor is hoping to do in the future — pitch and play quarterback for the Razorbacks. Lunney started 40 games as a college quarterback. He was selected in the MLB draft twice — out of high school in 1992 and four years later following his career with the Hogs.
“I talk to Lunney a lot,” Connor said. “He’s been a great help in my recruiting process. We just talk about balancing things with schoolwork and getting to practice and all that. He’s been a great help and definitely a role model to look up to.”
MLB decision looms
Connor announced his commitment to play both sports at Arkansas last July 20 — his 17th birthday.
He’s never wavered on his pledge, telling the schools inquiring since thanks but no thanks. He’s put in a lot of work recruiting others to Arkansas and told SEC Country last week he’d “sign tomorrow” if he could. He officially intends to do that Dec. 20, the first day it’s allowed for 2018 recruits.
But, as many Arkansas fans have wondered, will he forgo joining the Razorbacks altogether? It’s becoming apparent he’ll have the opportunity to do just that next summer.
Connor is highly likely to be selected in the 2018 MLB Draft. He and his family are becoming increasingly prepared for the possibility, though Connor is approaching everything as if he’ll enroll at Arkansas.
He’s said it would take a contract of around $2 million for him to truly consider skipping college. Such money is rare after the first round, though several factors are involved.
“We have had those discussions,” Frank said. “We’ve talked to numerous MLB draft advisors. We’ve been down that road for the past several months.
“The reality is, he’s looking forward to having the college experience. It would take a real special situation to pull him away from that.”
Connor will cross that bridge when the time arrives. Whatever he decides then, he’ll probably do it with a shrug and a smile while deferring the credit to others. That’s how his parents, and Greenwood, raised him.