Tuesday, October 09, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Falcons, Devils once again

Leader sports editor

Not since 2007 has cross-town rivals Jacksonville and North Pulaski met on the gridiron. That five-year hiatus ends on Friday when the Red Devils travel to Falcon Stadium. Jacksonville has lost just once in the long history of the city rivalry, and will be heavily favored to win this rivalry renewal game.

The Red Devils started the season 0-2 with losses to Cabot and Benton, but have since won four straight and are tied with Pulaski Academy at the top of the 5A Central standings at 3-0. North Pulaski started the year with a win over JA Fair, but hasn’t managed to win a game since.

Jacksonville coach Rick Russell isn’t hanging his hat on being the big favorite. He expects North Pulaski’s best effort.

“North Pulaski has done some good things all year,” Russell said. “They’ve made mistakes here and there at crucial times, turnovers, giving up a big play, but we feel like we’re going to get their best effort. They’re going to be more focused because it’s Jacksonville coming over. These kids all know each other. Both these teams play hard and from what I remember coaching as an assistant here is that the first half, at least, in these games is always close. We expect them to come out and battle.”

The rivalry angle works both ways, and Russell believes his team will have a little extra motivation as well.

“It’s a rivalry for our kids too,” Russell said. “We haven’t played them in quite a while and our kids want to win it. I don’t think they’re going to have a problem going out there and performing at a high level.”

Russell’s squad performed at its highest level of the season last week in a 49-14 rout of another old rival – Sylvan Hills. Jacksonville led that game 42-0 with eight minutes left in the third quarter. Heavy pressure by the defensive line was largely responsible for the Devils’ six forced turnovers.

Russell bragged on his team’s line play, but found some things in the play of his receiving corps while watching film that also drew his praise.

“I talked about our line play but our receivers played extremely well,” Russell said. “They not only ran good routes and caught the football, they blocked well. When we had those screens to the receivers, they were downfield blocking for each other and maintaining those blocks. We are so proud of how our receivers played football and we fully expect that sort of thing to continue. That’s the thing about this team. They’re learning what it takes to win, they’re filing that away and they’re taking it to the field. It’s a process but these kids approach football the right way and they’re getting better each week.”

Steady improvement is not something that North Pulaski has enjoyed this season. After winning their opener and losing competitively in their next two games, the Falcons have been mercy ruled in the first half in each of their three conference games. Second-year coach Teodis Ingram says there’s no sure-fire way to fix the turnover problems that has plagued his offense, but says giving up the big play on defense can be prevented.

“Look, there are some talented athletes in this conference and big plays are going to happen,” Ingram said. “But most of them we’ve given up should not have happened. We’ve just got to play smarter. I’m not getting my message across and I just can’t put my finger on what we need to do to fix that. I’m going to keep coaching. We’re going to stay positive and we’re going to keep working. One thing I can say is that these kids are still working hard. They’ve not given up. When you give up you stop coming to practice, or you stop going hard at practice. These kids haven’t done anything like that. They haven’t given up, I just don’t think they know how to continue moving forward when things go bad. But we’re going to keep coaching and trying to show them how to move forward and show them that working hard and persevering eventually brings good results.”