Friday, January 07, 2011

SPORTS>>Hot start a boost as Devils move on

By Todd Traub
Leader sports editor

If this is what Jacksonville does in a rebuilding mode, it is almost frightening what the Red Devils are capable of when up to speed.

Jacksonville was 11-0 entering Friday night’s 6A-East Conference opener with perennial state championship contender Little Rock Hall at the Devils Den. Even Red Devils coach Vic Joyner was surprised by the fast, non-conference start.

“No doubt about it,” Joyner said. “But you can attribute that to these kids. They worked so hard in preseason, every day in practice. Hard work has been paying off so far.

“You’ve got a team full of kids; none of them get in trouble. They all have their grades up. There’s no problem kids left because we don’t keep them around.”

Joyner said Jacksonville was still regrouping at the start of the season after winning the 6A state championship in 2009 and the experts were giving the edge this year to teams like Hall, West Memphis or Little Rock Parkview.

“We weren’t considered in the mix. Our names weren’t being mentioned,” Joyner said. “I really don’t think it is being mentioned now. It might be a little bit now because we got off to such a good start.

“We’re kind of in a rebuilding mode right now.”

The Devils entered the season with returning leading scorer Raheem Appleby, Xavier Huskey, James Akins and Justin McCleary representing most of the experience.

With Appleby averaging close to 23 points a game to lead the way, the nucleus has delivered during the early winning streak.

“He can create a shot so many different ways,” Joyner said of Appleby. “We’ve got Justin McCleary running the point. He ran the point even as a ninth-grader and now he’s a 10th-grader. He’s grown a lot in his knowledge of the game.”

Akins is basically a second point guard on the floor, Joyner said, and Terrell Brown has developed as an outside shooter.

“They’ve got pretty good chemistry and we’ve been doing a pretty good job on defense,” Joyner said.

Jacksonville’s early victims include defending 7A state champion Conway, 7A state tournament qualifier Cabot and 5A North Pulaski, which reached the state finals and semifinals, respectively, the past two years.

But it remains to be seen if that success carries over into conference play.

“Our conference is tough, top to bottom,” Joyner said. “There’s no weak links in there anywhere.”

At the outset of the season, Joyner said most of the teams in the 6A-East were full of returning talent and that he expected Jacksonville to be the experienced program next year while the other teams had turnover on their rosters.

“Searcy has all those seniors coming back; he’s as deep as he’s ever been,” Joyner said, expressing some envy of the other conference coaches. “Marion combined with Turrell; he’s as deep as he’s ever been. Even Mountain Home, those guys have been starting for him three years so he’s as deep as he’s ever been.”

It all started Friday against defending state champion Hall, which had four starters ranging from 6-4 to 6-10. Jacksonville’s tallest contributing players are Brown and Jamison Williams at 6-3.

“We call them Hall Junior College,” Joyner said. “That presents the biggest problem we’ve faced with our lack of size inside. This will be our most stern test right there.”

Joyner was only partially joking when he was asked what it would take to survive Hall and the rest of the conference lineup.

“First of all you’ve got to pray. Have a good spiritual life and relationship with God, that’s the first thing,” he said. “And then you’ve got to try to push it. You’ve got to push the tempo. But you’ve got problems when you try to push tempo because first you’ve got to control the boards and be able to run it, so that’s a problem unto itself.”