By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor
The Jacksonville Red Devils have shown signs of life lately, coach Victor Joyner said.
With 6A-East Conference play getting under way, they don’t have much choice.
“The atmosphere is going to change; it’s going to be way more intense in conference play,” Joyner said.
The Red Devils, the defending 6A state champions, had shown a frustrating inconsistency heading into Tuesday’s conference opener at Little Rock Parkview. Joyner especially was troubled by aggressive play that seemed to come and go.
“With a young team it’s sporadic,” Joyner said. “They bring it sometimes and sometimes they don’t.”
The Red Devils’ effort has improved somewhat since a 60-48 home loss to 5A state runner-up North Pulaski on Dec. 18, when Jacksonville closed within five points of the lead with 3:31 left only to give up six offensive rebounds as the Falcons pulled away.
“Are they better than they were? Yes,” Joyner said. “Hopefully as we get into the conference they can bring a little more aggression because it helps more.”
Joyner admitted it isn’t as easy to draw up aggression and effort as it is to draw up an inbounds play.
“That’s kind of where we are right now,” Joyner said. “We’ve got a lot of passive kids. They play hard for the most part, most of the time, and we’ve got some who are a little passive and timid.”
Joyner said the need for extra effort is made more important by the Red Devils’ lack of size. Guard and returning senior starter Deshone McClure, 6-3, is Jacksonville’s tallest player.
“That’s not good when your guard is the tallest one on your team, at any level,” Joyner said. “We’re getting ready to play some teams that have a lot more skilled big kids than some of the ones we’ve played.”
Joyner said even if his players use proper form, getting position and boxing out, rebounding will always be a challenge because of the Red Devils’ size.
“That’s pretty much all we talk about in practice,” Joyner said. “That’s what all the coaches have been harping on. Even when you’re small you can box them out, but if you box them out and you’re small it’s still hard to go up and get the rebound.
You’ve got to be gritty and you’ve got to cut down your mistakes and you’ve got to get the best out of each possession.”
Yet Joyner was looking forward to the chance to measure his team against Parkview in the 6A-East opener.
“You go into a hostile ground right off the bat,” he said. “We like the challenge. I love challenges. It’s a challenge for this team; it’s a challenge for the coaching staff. We’re looking forward to going over there regardless of what happens.
“Hopefully the people around Jacksonville will come out and support these youngsters because they’re the team of the future.”
Joyner said he has enjoyed coaching this year’s team as much or more than last year’s bigger, more athletic state champions.
Having a young team means there is more coaching to do, he said.
“Last year’s team, there was pressure every game,” Joyner said. “There’s not as much pressure on these kids. There’s going to be mistakes and you can’t be so critical that you’re going to worry about them getting out there and making those mistakes.”