Tuesday, November 16, 2010

SPORTS>>Red Devils find plus in playoffs

By todd traub
Leader sports editor

Thanks to its latest victory, Jacksonville has an immediate football future.

But with each success, the Red Devils are able to think long-term too.

A year after finishing with two victories, Jacksonville got its seventh last week, beating Sheridan 31-7 in the first round of the 6A state playoffs. The Red Devils will play the Pine Bluff Zebras in the second round at Pine Bluff on Friday.

“It’s really exciting today,” coach Rick Russell said before Monday’s practice. “There’s nothing like a playoff victory. Not a conference victory or a non-conference victory or a big win like Searcy. It’s a tournament, so when you get that win it’s special.”

The victory was another notch in the holster for the former defensive coordinator Russell, who returned to the program this season after one year away at North Pulaski.

But even more so, Russell said, the playoff victory was a coup for the Red Devils program.

“There’s a tremendous upside in getting to the playoffs and winning in the playoffs,” Russell said, when the comparison was made between the high school postseason and college bowl games. “In college it’s more of a reward. In high school it’s more an achievement thing.

“We’re one of the best teams in the conference and in the state. Let’s see where we fit into that top eight or that top four.”

One of the long-term benefits, other than the obvious one of putting the Red Devils program in a positive light, is being able to get younger players involved sooner.

Since the junior high teams are through and the senior Devils are still practicing, Russell has been able to bring seventh- and eighth-graders over to watch workouts and get a feel for what will be expected of them in a couple of years.

And the coaching staff has been able to get some actualplaying time for some of Max Hatfield’s ninth-graders.

“I’d say 8 to 10 of them got to play Friday night,” Russell said. “And they got to see the speed of the game and be motivated for their high school career.”

Motivation hasn’t been a problem for the varsity players. There were a couple of first-half turnovers for the Red Devils to overcome, but Russell didn’t see any evidence of nerves or tightness.

“We stressed all week we’ve got to win the football game Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in our practices,” Russell said. “The kids were focused and they knew what to expect from Sheridan and how to attack offensively and defensively. They were ready for 7 o’clock to get here.

“It was very rewarding, especially for the kids. They were ready to play. Especially for the seniors. They wanted to leave Jan Crow Stadium in a positive way.”

Against Pine Bluff (9-1), the No 2 seed from the 6A-South, Russell knows he will be facing a good team, well rested from its first-round bye and playing at home.

“Probably their base offense is the I but they’ll run some slot wing stuff and then they’ll run your basic I offense. They have some big linemen. They run the football probably 90 percent of the time. A little option, a power type football team.

“They’re 9-1. They do that really well.”

Russell said the Red Devils’ objective on defense will be to shift around on the front line and try to get penetration to disrupt plays before they can develop, which is pretty much Jacksonville’s style anyway.

Pine Bluff runs a 4-3, read-and-react style of defense. Russell said his offense would try to spread the Zebras out and attack where they are stretched the thinnest.

None of that is expected to be easy. But Russell said the playoffs have reached that point in which anything can happen.

“There’s only 25 percent of the football teams in Arkansas left and we’re in that 25 percent and we’re excited about that,” he said.

“We feel like we’re going to have a chance in every ballgame. The playoffs, it’s not the better team record-wise or on paper, it’s the better team that night.”