Tuesday, March 01, 2011

SPORTS >> Devils’ esteemed Raheem

Leader sports editor

For every Archie Goodwin, Jacksonville has Raheem Appleby.

For every Aaron Ross or Jamal Jones, the Red Devils counter with Raheem Appleby.

Appleby, Jacksonville’s senior guard, has gone up against the best college basketball prospects in the state, holding his own against some, outshining others, as he has helped lead Jacksonville into the 6A state tournament.

Jacksonville, riding a six-game winning streak, tips off at 2:30 p.m. today against Texarkana at Marion.

“Everybody’s got to play together,” Appleby said. “We can’t play selfish. We can go far like that.”

While college scouts have come to look at players like Goodwin, Sylvan Hills’ five-star recruit, or Ole Miss signees Jones of Searcy, and Ross, of Little Rock Parkview, they can’t help but get an eyeful of Appleby in the process.

“When people know that you’re coming,” Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner said, “and they watch tape and try to find flaws and ways to cover you and you still come out and get 25, 30 points.

“Against the quality of people that were in our conference, with the number of athletic teams that we play. And this kid was coming out and getting 25, 30 points a game — that goes without saying.”

With his speed, slashing style, shooting touch and overall effort, Appleby, 6-2, has at times stolen the show from the more heralded recruits. On Feb. 23, while Jones was struggling to score 13 points after banging his knee early in Searcy’s last visit to the Devils Den, Appleby was exploding to score 31.

Behind Appleby, the Red Devils beat Goodwin’s Bears in the Conway Wampus Cat Invitational, stomped Ross’ Patriots 60-44 to set up a season split and 6A-East co-championship with Parkview and swept Jones’ Lions.

“I think I can play with all of them,” Appleby said. “I don’t know. I just play. I’m not worried about it.”

With its co-championship and tiebreaker edge on Parkview, Jacksonville (21-3, 11-3) enters the state tournament as the No. 2 seed, with a favorable draw in the bracket and a better than outside chance of reaching its second state championship game in three years.

Jacksonville beat Little Rock Hall to win the state final in 2009.

“It’s a lot different,” Appleby said. “I didn’t play that much back then. Now I play a whole lot.”

One of the differences is Appleby, Joyner said.

“Raheem has had these skills ever since he’s been here,” Joyner said. “But he’s such an unselfish kid. He yielded his sophomore year, when he was just learning, but he had that championship team. He had to yield to those kids.”

Appleby is averaging 19.7 points, 2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 rebounds a game. He has stepped forward this season after Joyner urged him to do so last year.

“We prodded him, poked him, encouraged him to score,” Joyner said. “Because he could score just like this, we saw it in practice. But he yielded to D’Shone McClure and T.J. Green. And every time Raheem scored 12 points or more last year, we won a game.”

“I know they expect me to score, which I think I will, but I just want to keep the team together,” Appleby said.

During their six-game streak, which came on a compressed schedule that forced them to play consecutive nights because of makeup games, the Red Devils found other scorers to complement Appleby.

“The last six games, brutal stretch that we had, we were able to sit Raheem down for two or three minutes a quarter,” Joyner said. “And let people like Aaron Smith, Dustin House, Jonathon Patterson, Crushawn Hayes —those kids stepped up and gave him rest.

“And that was huge for that six-game stretch. It gave the other guys an opportunity to get out there and learn a little bit.”

With the college recruiters drifting in Appleby’s direction, UALR, coached by Steve Shields, appears to have the inside track. Missouri State, Moorehead State and Tulsa have also shown interest, as well as a cluster of junior colleges.

One way or the other, Appleby appears likely to continue his career. But Joyner said the final months of class are going to determine whether Appleby will academically qualify for a four-year school or go the junior college route to get eligible.

“The kid is smart because he made a 20 on his ACT and that’s no easy task,” Joyner said. “So he’s already got a high ACT score but he’s got to get his GPA up.”

In the meantime, Appleby will be trying to close out his high school career with another championship.

“The teams we’re going to play, we’ve played them before so we know what they look like,” Appleby said. “So we kind of know how to prepare for them.”