Friday, January 07, 2011

SPORTS>>Falcons, Bears lend intensity to tough league

Leader sportswriter

The 5A-Southeast Conference could be a microcosm of Class 5A basketball this year.

With small senior classes and an unusually large pool of talented juniors, many schools in the 5A Southeast find themselves somewhere between rebuilding and being a frontrunner.

North Pulaski and Sylvan Hills are no different, although circumstances leading up to Friday’s conference openers have been different.

The 4-9 Falcons are defending 5A-Southeast co-champions and state semifinalists. They reached the state finals two years ago, but senior forward Bryan Colson is the only player who remains from that squad.

The departure of key players Aaron Cooper, Duquan Bryant and Kyron Ware has left the Falcons a little inexperienced, but younger players such as junior guard Braylon Spicer and junior center Jeremiah Hollis are beginning to fill that void.

The 8-3 Bears have generated a lot of attention with a loaded junior class, and have had recruiting interest for standout guard Archie Goodwin from major college powerhouses around the country. Goodwin makes up part of a junior-dominated squad that includes forward Larry Zeigler, post player Devin Pearson and point guard Trey Smith.

“I’m sure they’re probably the favorite,” North Pulaski coach Raymond Cooper said of Sylvan Hills. “Mills is strong, and Monticello has three or four starters back. They also have some good freshmen that are going to play up. Watson Chapel should also be pretty decent.”

The Falcons went 0-3 in a tournament in Poplar Bluff, Mo., during the final week of December. Two of the games started with North Pulaski falling far behind early before coming back to make it close late.

Liberty Tech, a school that has won two Missouri state championships in five years of existence, led by 20 before the Falcons closed the gap to 48-44 at the final buzzer. North Pulaski also fell 17 down to Memphis Hillcrest before cutting it to two points.

“We’ve got to figure out how to come out strong,” Cooper said. “One thing about it, we may be better off starting the game down by 10. Once we get down, then they relax and start playing.”

The Bears went 2-1 at the Wynne tournament over the holiday break, losing to Forrest City 78-75 in the finals when a last-second shot by Goodwin didn’t fall. They beat Wynne and Hughes to reach the championship.

“It was a very good tournament for us,” Sylvan Hills coach Kevin Davis said. “We needed to play over the break. We beat two good ball clubs coming off a layoff, so the kids responded well. We just didn’t shoot well at all against Forrest City.”

Goodwin averaged 38 points through the three-game tournament, including 42 against Hughes.

“He got a really good look at the end, it just didn’t go down,” Davis said of the Forrest City finale. “But for us to shoot as poor as we did and still be in it at the end, we looked at that as something positive that we can build on.”

Cooper and Davis agree the parity extends into other 5A conferences, and beyond.

“I don’t think there’s really any one dominant team in any classification except maybe Hall,” Cooper said. “There are 20 teams that can win it. There are a lot of pretty good teams, and I think it’s going to boil down to who gets hot in the last week of the regular season.”

“If you look across the state at how most of the teams have done early, it’s been a really good year,” Davis said. “I don’t see anybody who doesn’t have a chance to win it, and it will probably come down to whose kids mature the fastest.”

North Pulaski’s longstanding rivalry with cross-town 6A school Jacksonville has been well documented, but with the Falcons and Bears also in proximity to each other and in the same conference the past three seasons, their rivalry is beginning to eclipse others locally.

Cooper graduated Sylvan Hills in the mid-1980s and said he will have to have his Falcons ready to face a Bears team intent on revenge after North Pulaski has swept the series the past two years.

“There’s no doubt — this year’s going to be a good one,” Cooper said.

“They’re going to be looking for payback since we’ve swept them the last couple of years now that they’re the top dogs. They’ve probably got their sights on us, so we’ll have to be prepared.”