Friday, June 27, 2008

SPORTS>>Home opener

Leader sportswriter

There’s a new game in town. And it starts tonight at 7.

The second era of the Arkansas Rhinos will begin at Red Devil Field today with a rematch against the Memphis Blast. The perennial North America Football League contenders took an easy 34-7 win over the Blast in their opener two weeks ago in
Memphis, but today’s matchup will be the Rhinos’ first in their new hometown of Jacksonville.

“They are really looking forward to it,” said head coach Oscar Malone, a former Arkansas Razorback running back. “They’re ready to play their first game at home, plus we’ve been off for a week, so they are ready to get out there and play again. I have several guys from Jacksonville, and a lot of them are talking about how much fun it’s going to be to play in their hometown again.”

The Rhinos spent their first seven seasons in the Little Rock area, but the Jacksonville Middle School football field will host their five home games this summer. The next home game after tonight will not be played until Aug. 2, but from that point on, the Rhinos will play at Red Devil Field every other weekend through the Sept. 13 home finale against the Texarkana Warriors.
Malone, who played for the Razorbacks in the mid-90s and was once listed as the No. 4 all-time rusher for the UA, says his team is ready for their first home game, and anxious to make its presence felt here in Jacksonville.

In the first meeting between the two teams, the Blast offense had to play without the services of big-play running back Kevin Veal. The former Ohio St. Buckeye, Veal (5 feet, 10 inches, 220 pounds) was sidelined with a hamstring injury, but is expected to be back for tonight’s contest.

Malone says the addition of Veal changes everything.

“He makes a big difference in their game plan,” Malone said. “He gives them a lot more firepower for their offense.”

In that first game, the Rhinos got great special teams play in the form of three interceptions and a returned punt for a touchdown. Robert Jemerson returned his pick for a score, while Jermaine Kornegay picked off two passes.

Lance Smith returned a punt 41 yards for a touchdown.

Defensively, Enrico Williams had a big game, making 12 solo tackles and assisting on three more.

Tony Phillips led the rushing attack for the Rhinos with 87 yards and a touchdown as Arkansas piled up 388 yards. Josh Dixon and Jeremiah Crouch split time at quarterback. Dixon was 8 of 21 for 157 yards and a touchdown. Smith caught a team-high six passes for 109 yards, while kicker/receiver Morgan Garrett caught five passes — one for a touchdown.

Confidence is high for the Rhinos going in to tonight’s game after handily beating the Blast the first time around, but Malone says that is not necessarily a good thing.

“That’s the toughest part,” Malone said. “You want to make sure that execution is good everywhere, but some guys will say, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’ll do it in the game,’ and I say, ‘No, you’ll do it right now, so we can see where we’re at.’ Yeah, confidence is high right now with the first win, and stuff we did in the past like a undefeated regular season and 10-2 seasons and things like that, so you have to change up what you say to them to get them motivated.”

Jacksonville Middle School Boys principal Michael Nellums helped bring Malone and the Rhinos to town by making the JMSB field available on Saturdays throughout the summer. Nellums, along with assistant principal Jackie Calhoun and recently retired athletic director Eugene Stuckey, saw the potential for success with a local semi-pro football team in their backyard.

“I was really more of just a facilitator,” Nellums said. “I knew there was potential for them to come in and have a good fan base in the community. A lot of people in this town enjoy football, and there is a lull in sports during the summer time.

“We have baseball and softball that goes on over at Dupree, but there were a lot of people from the Air Force Base and otherwise that expressed interest in seeing semi-pro football in this town.”

Coach Stuckey says that having the Rhinos in town helps out in various ways.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Stuckey said. “Jacksonville is a pretty good-sized town, and everybody wants their own team to root for. It will also help on the school level to help us bring in some money. It will be a good place for people to go on weekends.

They’ve played in different areas of Little Rock over the years and they want a permanent home.”

Malone says the realization for him of how far things have come since he joined the Rhinos organization back in 2002 came on a recent trip back from War Memorial Stadium. The Rhinos billboard sign at the 67/167 exit at Kiehl Avenue in Sherwood is more than a simple advertisement for a NAFL team. For Malone, it is also a reminder of a potentially groundbreaking summer for his squad.

“I didn’t think it would be up this soon, because we only play here once before August,” Malone said. “But I saw it that day and thought about the fact that it’s going to be there for the entire month of July before we come back on Aug. 2 (vs. Nashville), and that’s a good thing.”

The Rhinos have enjoyed much success in their short history, winning five consecutive Tennessee Valley Conference titles from 2002-06 and reaching the NAFL semifinals in 2005.