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story.lead_photo.caption Greenbrier softball coach Brian Butler, the 2018 RVO Coach of the Year. - Photo by Mark Buffalo

GREENBRIER — For a few years, Brian Butler wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with his life, but he has found his place and his calling with Greenbrier softball.

Butler, 55, who led the Lady Panthers to their second state championship — his third — is the River Valley & Ozark Edition Coach of the Year for 2018.

“Coach Butler does a great job with his kids,” said Vilonia coach Kevin Sullivan, Butler’s friend and rival who is a former RVO Coach of the Year. “I actually visited with him before the year started, and he said he had been to a clinic or read a book that really changed his perspective on coaching kids. It obviously paid off.

“He had some tough, hard-nosed kids, and he got the most out of them. I feel like that’s the trick to coaching, and he did that better than anyone this season.”

Butler’s career record is 238-77 — a winning percentage of .755. He is 126-18 (.875) in conference games.

Senior pitcher Jaylee Englekes called him “a softball dad.”

“He’s always there for you,” she said. “If you ever need anything, if you’re upset with yourself, he helps you.”

Greenbrier finished 29-6 overall after an 0-2 start and swept the 5A-West, 14-0.

Three of the losses came against Bentonville, which won its third consecutive Class 7A title this spring.

Butler grew up in Memphis,

played high school baseball and said he had a chance to play at Mississippi State.

“But I wasn’t ready to go to college,” he said. “I never would’ve made it.”

Instead, he joined the Air Force, where he spent six years as a police officer. He got to Arkansas when he was stationed at the Little Rock Air Force Base and eventually cashed in that deferred college experience. He spent three years at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he said he was influenced by “some really good professors,” and he earned his Bachelor of Science in Education degree with a history emphasis from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway in 1996.

From there, he spent a year teaching at North Little Rock. Although he didn’t have his coaching endorsement, after a basketball coach quit, school officials asked him if he’d help.

“I did that with the ninth-grade team from December on,” he said. “Then I started with track, and I did one track meet when the assistant softball coach’s mother got ill and [the coach] took leave. They were just fixing to start fastpitch.

“I guess the rest is history.”

He earned his coaching endorsement and stayed at NLR four years, leading the Lady Cats to the state title in his final year before coming to Greenbrier to work under Tommy Reed, who had built one of the state’s best programs there. After Reed’s retirement, Butler took the reins in 2008.

“I stumbled into it, just happened into softball,” Butler said. “I’ve loved it ever since.”

The Lady Panthers came close to their first state title in 2005.

“We should’ve won,” Butler said. “We were 27-2 and hosted the state tournament but got beat in the first round by Marion. We were unbelievably good that year.”

Despite the disappointment, the foundation was laid.

In 2009, Greenbrier reached the state semifinals. In 2010, the Lady Panthers got their first state championship, knocking off Wynne in eight innings, 5-4. In 2013, they lost to White Hall in the championship game, 1-0. In ’16, they lost 5-4 to “the team that will remain nameless” — their Faulkner County rival Vilonia.

Since 2008, Greenbrier has reached at least the semifinals eight times. For eight consecutive years — 2010 through 2017 — the Lady Panthers played Vilonia for a 5A-West championship.

“We did win six of those,” Butler said, chuckling.

He just finished his 17th year at the school.

This year, Greenbrier rolled through most of March to 11 consecutive wins. In April against the defending Class 4A champion Pottsville, the Lady Panthers went up 1-0 in the top of the first before giving up 11 runs in the bottom of the inning — on three hits.

“We only lost 15-11, but we played like we were not capable of playing,” Butler said. “That loss slapped us in the face. We were not as good as we thought we were. Every now and then, you need those.”

Another one came in a 7-5 loss to Morrilton in the 5A-West semifinals.

“In the 11 games I’ve coached against them, we’d never lost to Morrilton,” Butler said. “Absolutely, in every part of the game, they beat us. We hadn’t had that happen, especially to a conference team, in a long time. It woke us up.

“I look back on it, and it helped us to lose. I knew we were good and capable of playing with anybody in [Class] 5A, but up to that point, we just beat them.”

But with Vilonia looming in the third-place game to set seedings for the state tournament, the Lady Panthers rebounded from the loss quickly.

“If you can’t get up for Vilonia, there’s no hope,” Butler said. “We beat them 4-3, and I thought that game put us back on track. We rocked and rolled in the state tournament.”

Greenbrier, the third seed from the West, knocked off White Hall, second from the South, in the opening game, 8-5; Batesville, fourth from the East, in the quarterfinals, 9-1; Morrilton, second from the West, in the semifinals, 11-3; and Farmington, first from the West, in the championship game at the University of Arkansas’ Bogle Field, 3-2.

“We paid Morrilton back, and that was huge,” Butler said. “I was really proud of the girls. You can’t get a better opportunity to pay somebody back than for the chance to go to the state final.”

In the state final against Farmington, the game was tied 1-1 in the fourth before Greenbrier got two runs when Englekes’ shot to the shortstop resulted in a two-run error for a 3-1 lead.

“I’ve always believed you’ve got to have a luck game, and that was ours,” Butler said. “They scored one run in the seventh. It was a good game. It was going to be tough, and it’s rare for them to make a mistake like that.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”

So what’s his formula for success?

“We’ve just had a whole bunch of very good players,” Butler said. “We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve got one who just graduated [from the U of A], Autumn Russell. We’ve had 13 or 14 go on and play in college and some others that didn’t who could have.

“I just tried to keep everybody focused and on track this year. I think it’s more of a managing-people role than managing the game. I try to stay out of the way in the game and put the right person in the right place at the right time.”

He did all that in 2018, and it paid off.

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