A familiar face to Union County baseball fans is returning.
Jeff Burson, who guided Smackover for two years before departing to become the pitching coach at Arkansas Rich Mountain, has been hired as El Dorado’s new baseball coach.
Burson takes over for Cannon Lester, who departed to become South Arkansas Community College’s first head coach.
“I’m just real excited to be able to come back home,” Burson said. “I’m real excited to work at El Dorado. The administration has been real supportive, and I’m just excited to be a Wildcat. I’m looking forward to working with those young men. I know the ones that I’ve worked with are really high-character young men. I’m excited to get in there and see if I can help them get better.”
Burson guided Smackover to the regional tournament in 2019 and a 6-1 start in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the remainder of the season.
At Arkansas Rich Mountain, the Bucks posted a 29-28 record in their debut season, finishing as the runner-up at the Division II Plains District Tournament.
Burson said returning to Union County was a family decision.
“I was living in Mena and I was looking for something to get back home,” he said. “I loved what I was doing over there, working for coach (Lance) Spigner. But my family, I just felt like it was a good opportunity for me to get back with my family. I didn’t see my wife but three times after Christmas. I’m going to be a grandfather now, so things have changed in a year. I loved being a part of starting that program over there and I love those kids. We were one game away from the World Series, which is pretty exciting for a first-year program. Sometimes things change and my family comes first with me.”
Although Smackover and El Dorado didn’t play one another at the varsity level, Burson said he is familiar with some of his new players.
“I worked with several of the kids when they were younger, giving them lessons,” he said. “I had Chase Webb at Rich Mountain, so I had an idea of how Cannon did things over here. I developed a good relationship with Chase at Rich Mountain. I thought a lot of him as a player and a man. It was just a good opportunity for me to get back home, what Cannon has got started here at El Dorado.
“It was just a good opportunity for me to get back home and into a good situation, especially working for coach (Phillip) Lansdell. I’ve known him for a long time and have a lot of respect for him as a coach. I look forward to working for him.”
Burson said his relationship with Lansdell stretches back almost 40 years.
“My first roommate in college played for coach Lansdell when he was in Converse, Louisiana,” Burson said. “That’s how I started to get to know coach Lansdell was back around 1985. We both love baseball. Through the years, we’ve just talked about baseball. He knows the game. He’s a good one to lean on. If I ever run into any problems, I can always go talk with him.”
Burson said he was going to try and meet with the team before the dead period mandated by the Arkansas Activities Association begins later this month, and he also will be incorporating what he learned at the collegiate level to El Dorado.
“I had time to study the movement of the body and how everybody is going to react,” Burson said. “Having 18 pitchers, I had to really get to know them. It was like going to a lab. If we didn’t see results, we would make a change. We played so many games that I was able to keep an even keel and not get too up or down.”
Although the Wildcats missed qualifying for the state tournament this past season, El Dorado went 14-13 overall and 7-7 in the rugged 5A South despite the pitching staff being decimated by injuries.
Burson credited his predecessor and he hopes to continue on what Lester has started.
“I think he did lay a good foundation. He just had a bunch of injuries this year that set the guys back,” Burson said. “I look to just keep building on what he has done and just see how good we can be. Every day, just see if we can get better and see where we’re at at the end. That’s my goal. That’s what I do. Don’t worry about championships, just get better every day. If we do that, I think we’ll be OK at the end.”