Tuesday, January 03, 2012

SPORTS >> Warriors host JHS’ first East road test

Leader sports editor

The real basketball season starts this week as conference play gets into full swing across the state. That means a bigger task for no other team in Arkansas than Jacksonville, which plays in the brutally competitive 6A East, along with perennial powerhouses Parkview, Hall, Jonesboro and West Memphis. Marion, Mountain Home and Searcy all have strong tradition as well and all three are coming off at least a quarterfinal appearance in last year’s state tournament.

It starts out tough for the Red Devils and Lady Devils as they begin league play on the road at Hall at 6 p.m. Thursday. The game was moved from Friday to accommodate Arkansas football fans who want to watch the Cotton Bowl.

Hall’s boys don’t have the big-time guards they usually do, but this year they have a big-time post player in junior Bobby Portis, who has already received scholarship offers from several Division I schools. Portis, 6 feet, 10 inches, can be a dominant inside force, but teams can’t just focus on him.

“The team is kind of built around him,” Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner said. “They have some veteran guards too though. They maybe haven’t been playing as well as they’d like, but they are veterans and they know how to turn it up when they need to turn it up.”

Hall, like most teams in the league, likes to press. While the Warrior guards haven’t yet been as impressive as usual in their play, they are impressive to look at. Hall features tall guards with long arms that disrupt passing lanes.

“They’re just so athletic,” Joyner said. “They’re tall, muscled up, just athletic. When you have athletes on the court anything is possible.”

Jacksonville will have some depth at guard and should be able to handle intense pressure better than it did early in the season with the addition of senior Joe Aikens. He returns this week after regaining his academic eligibility.

“He’s going to help tremendously,” Joyner said. “James just has a high basketball IQ. He takes pressure off Justin McCleary because he won’t have to handle the ball as much as he did before conference. It will get him off the ball and get him a rest mentally. Running point all the time, especially in this league, can wear on you.”

Jacksonville has no shortage of depth at any position, and Joyner doesn’t plan on setting a limit to the substitution rotation.

“The game will dicate the rotation,” Joyner said. “We kind of have a pecking order for the first nine, but if the game dicates we play 12 or 13 that’s what we’re going to do. We’ve been trying all year to get as many people ready as we can, so we just have to see how the games go.”

The girls league isn’t quite as deep with perennial powerhouses, but is very strong at the top, and does include the state’s top ranked team in Parkview, as well as several college-bound players.

The Jacksonville ladies have had an impressive pre-conference season, going 9-1. They weren’t quite as impressive this early last year, but they did have a winning record before things fell apart in a winless conference record.

This year’s team is better than last year’s, with more experience and depth, a true point guard in freshmen Shakyla Hill and the continued improvement of Division I prospect Jessica Jackson.

Hall also has a big-time guard in Tyler Scathe. The Lady Warriors offense will run through her.

“She’s running the show for them,” Lady Devil coach Katrina Mimms said. “They pretty much do what they did last year, where 95 percent of everything they do goes through her. It looks like their post game has improved this year too, so they should be better this year in that regard.”

Mimms’ roster doesn’t go quite as deep as Joyners, but she feels she has enough players to keep people fresh.

Hill, Jackson and defensive specialist Sascha Richardson are mainstays in the starting lineup, with six or seven more who can contribute quality minutes, including returning starter Tiffany Smith.