Tuesday, October 30, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> League title on the line for JHS

Leader sports editor

Jacksonville suffered a major disappointment last week in its 7-6 loss at Mills on Friday, but it didn’t diminish what’s left to play for this week when it hosts highly-ranked Pulaski Academy (7-2, 6-0).

The Red Devils (6-3, 5-1) were hoping this Thursday’s matchup at Jan Crow Stadium would be between the league’s only two undefeated teams for the outright 5A Central championship. Instead, they enter the game with one loss, but still have the chance to earn a share of the league title.

“The kids are still playing for a conference championship,” Jacksonville coach Rick Russell said. “They’ve been looking forward to this game for a long time and they’ll be ready to play. Every week we’ve had a goal and that’s to win the game. We didn’t get that done last week, but our body of work over the course of the season still has us in a place where we can win a championship, so our goals are the same.”

Pulaski Academy enters the game on a six-game winning streak and is ranked no lower than No. 2 by any of the state’s polls. One poll has the Bruins at the top of the class 5A rankings while all the others have them second behind Camden Fairview.

Those rankings aren’t unwarranted. Russell knows his team will be facing class 5A’s best passing attack this week.

“Defensively we’re going to need to be in the right spots in terms of alignment,” Russell said. “We’re going to need good coverage and we’re going to need pressure on the quarterback. In some games you might get away with one or the other, but in this one we’re going to need both.”

Several Red Devil defensive linemen are nursing injuries after the Mills game, but all should be ready to play by Thursday.

“That was a very physical football game,” Russell said. “We have a several defensive linemen with sore ankles and sore knees. They had to rebound from a lot of low blocks and chop blocks they were using. They played an outstanding game, but they’re a little sore from it.”

Pulaski Academy’s offensive efficiency has been the key to its success this season. Teams have been able to score against the Bruins’ defense, but no one has been able to stop the offense. The Red Devils know that will be a major task.

“They’re going to run routes better than any team we’ve faced,” Russell said. “They’re going to be more precise in the passing game than any team we’ve faced. They’re going to show more alignments and more formations than any team we’ve faced. That all adds up to we’re going to have to play our best football game. We’ve still been searching for our best game and I don’t think we’ve seen it yet. We’re going to have to have it in this game.”

Like most teams do against the Bruins, Jacksonville plans to play ball-control offense.

“We need first downs,” Russell said. “The best way to keep them from scoring is to keep that offense off the field.”

There won’t be any punt return practice for Jacksonville this week and very little punt-team practice. The extra time available will be spent on kickoff returns.

“They don’t punt at all so that takes away some of our scoring potential because we feel like we have one of the best return men in the state in Kevin Richardson,” Russell said. “They also don’t try to block or return punts. They’re going to stand there for the snap and run to the sideline. They’re entirely focused on getting that offense onto the field. But they on-side kick it every time so we’re going to work on that and not letting them have any extra possessions.”

The Red Devils and Bruins kickoff at 7 p.m. Thursday.