Tuesday, August 24, 2010

SPORTS>>Everyone is still a winner

Leader sportswriter

Hope springs eternal, or to Week 6, whichever comes first.

High-school football season is less than a week away, and right now, everyone is destined for a conference championship, top playoff seed and trip to War Memorial Stadium to play in a state championship game.

At least until they take the field for their season opener.

After that, those common phrases such as “rebuilding year” and “young team” will begin to pop up.

There are many stories of interest entering the season and Jacksonville and North Pulaski, with new coaches, have the most noteworthy local angles. Well, one is sort of new, and the other, very new, sort of.

Rick Russell is back at Jacksonville where he was defensive coordinator for a number of years before taking over at North Pulaski last season. His departure from North Pulaski to Jacksonville a month ago left the door open for Terrod Hatcher, a former Red Devils player himself, to move up from offensive coordinator to head coach of thestruggling Falcons program.

Hatcher, at 23, is the youngest head coach in the state.

The word on Hatcher is that he is a football prodigy, the kind of guy who looks over depth charts in the morning while eating his Honey Bunches of Oats.

He’s going to need his vitamins and minerals if he’s going to lead the Falcons out of their 31-year slump. At a school where it is never known if the top talent will return from one year to the next because of the comings and goings of Air Force families on the nearby base and cross-town transfers, a winning tradition has escaped the fabulous fighting Falcons.

At a North Pulaski basketball game in January, I sat next to a gentleman who was on the Falcons’ only winning team in 1985.

Nice fellow, but his story is so typical of the problems the school has faced in football.

The playoff system was different, and the former player said that despite going 8-2, the Falcons missed the postseason by a few points to Mills.

I asked him if the finish was disappointing and he replied, “Yeah, it was. But I said ‘To heck with it,’ and I played my senior year at Jacksonville.”

It’s a tough gig for someone just starting his coaching career. But if Hatcher manages to turn the program around and take the Falcons to the playoffs in the next few years, he will undoubtedly be the toast of the town.

Maybe Hatcher is just what that program needs, a young and energetic coach with something to prove.

If the Falcons are not successful, I don’t think it will be considered a blemish on Hatcher’s resume.

Consider that some of the school’s better athletes opt to stay in Ray Cooper’s basketball program and not go out for other sports. That also hurts, but it’s hard to argue with that program’s success in recent years.

I also think Hatcher is a good fit demographically. Here is a guy to whom the kids can really relate— a product of their hometown who went on to play a little football at the next level, and more importantly graduated early with honors, and is now a coach.

We’ve seen bad programs turn around before.

Searcy’s Tim Harper took the Lions to the playoffs last year in his first season, erasing five years of frustration. Harper returns with a team loaded with talent and depth and believes it can beat anyone.

It shows in the rankings. Hooten’s Arkansas Football has the Lions finishing fourth in the 7A/6A-East this year, their best preseason ranking since 2002.

As for Russell, he just seems like a natural fit at Jacksonville. Maybe it is the familiarity with the program where he spent 14 years, but he acts more enthusiastic than a year ago.

Not to say Russell didn’t give it his all at North Pulaski, he just seemed a bit overwhelmed at times. The Red Devils under Mark Whatley last year did not seem the same without Russell calling the defensive shots, so maybe there is a kinship with the Red
Devils that will serve as a springboard for success.

Some local teams are looking to rebound after uncharacteristically down seasons.

Beebe is the best example. John Shannon was quick in establishing his own tradition when he took over the Badgers in 2007 and installed the time-tested Dead-T running game he learned under Mr. Dead-T himself, Cabot coach Mike Malham.

The Badgers failed to make the playoffs last year for the first time in Shannon’s three seasons, but are back with more size at the line. Batesville is favored in the 5A-East but Beebe appears likely to get back to the postseason despite a low preseason ranking.

Some teams are looking to repeat their success from last year.

Cabot had a dream season going until those pesky Wildcats from Springdale Har-Ber came down and bumped the Panthers from the playoffs for a second-straight year. Well, at least they had the decency to do it in the semifinals this time instead of the first round.

Cabot has to replace many starters from last year, including a top running back and a NCAA Division I-AA linebacker.

Lonoke also lost a lot, most notably all-state running back Brandon Smith. But Lonoke is one of those towns that rarely goes through a bad talent cycle.

Plus, Jackrabbits coach Doug Bost already has a multi-faceted weapon in junior Tommy “T.J.” Scott, who will play running back, linebacker, kicker and — rumor has it —run the concession stand at halftime.

We will have a feel for who will be contenders and who won’t by the end of next week, and will know for sure in most cases by midseason. So hold on to those state-title dreams for now.

But at least wait until the playoffs begin before you reserve your hotel rooms near War Memorial.