Friday, December 28, 2012

SPORT STORY >> Local teams gear up for league

Leader sportswriter

It’s a great time to be a Jacksonville Red Devils fan, and Lady Devils, for that matter.

The new year will usher in high-school basketball conference play in the state, including Jacksonville’s new home in the 5A Central Conference, a league that is essentially a mix of the old 7A/6A East and 5A Southeast Conferences.

Comparatively, the new Central league may not be quite as tough as the Red Devils’ former East conference without state dynasties Little Rock Hall, Jonesboro, West Memphis and Little Rock Parkview, but the addition of powerhouse Pulaski Academy fills at least one of those voids for the most part. Add longtime rivals and multi-time state champion Mills University Studies, defending 5A champion Sylvan Hills and longtime juggernaut Little Rock McClellan into the mix, and it still stands out as one of the tougher leagues in the state.

The Red Devils, under seventh-year coach Victor Joyner, have enjoyed a strong tradition of success over the past decade, and early indications point to another promising season in 2012-13. Jacksonville is currently 8-3 with a top-100 national ranking, and has already posted an impressive string of invitational-tournament victories.

This year’s team is built around point guard Justin McCleary, a three-year starter for Joyner, but the senior is far from the only premier talent on the Red Devil roster. Keith Charleston has proved to be a consistent scorer and rebounder with a strong presence on the low post while football standout Aaron Smith has more than proved his worth on the hardwood as a sharpshooter.

Most prognosticators are pointing to a potential showdown between Jacksonville and Mills to decide who takes the Central championship this season, but few are willing to completely rule out PA or McClellan. Sylvan Hills is in the middle of a complete rebuild, but the Bears do have a stable of young talent, including deadeye-shooting junior guard Ronnie Hinton and classmate Delsin Parker, who also has the ability to hit outside shots consistently. Senior DeMonte Davidson is also in his first year as a starter, but the post player has stepped into both a performance and leadership role through the early season.

North Pulaski could also have a say in how the Central division plays out after a strong start to its nonconference season. The Falcons suffered through an uncharacteristic losing season last year under new coach Roy Jackson, but the former Red Devil assistant has them off to a solid 5-3 start for the 12-13 season.

Freshman RaShawn Langston is a tall point guard at 6-foot-3, and gives Jackson a weapon he was without last year. Junior guard and Jacksonville transfer Joe Aikens is emerging as a pure scorer, an important asset to have for the grind of a conference schedule, and also something the team was without last season.

The jury is still out on other Central teams such as McClellan and Central High School (Helena), while Little Rock Christian could be facing a mismatch on most nights if the Warriors do not pick up the pace from a difficult December outing. McClellan doesn’t have that impressive of a record at 3-6, but has played a brutal schedule so far and has been competitive in most of those games.

There may not be as much suspense on the ladies’ side as the Lady Red Devils return a dominant group, led by University of Arkansas signee Jessica Jackson.

Head coach Katrina Mimms led Jacksonville to an impressive run last season with a trip to the 6A state semifinals, and the Lady Devils have picked up where they left off early in the 12-13 season. Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian hope to play spoiler to Jacksonville, while local rivals Sylvan Hills and North Pulaski have both shown improvement early this season.

On the 7A side, the Cabot Lady Panthers are out to defend their 7A state title from a year ago, but will have to do it as underdogs once again. Many thought last year was Cabot’s best team in ages, and by the end of the season there was no doubt. This year’s team is still among the favorites in its conference, but teams like Little Rock Hall, Fort Smith Northside and Conway are the ones most are mentioning in state championship conversations.

Seniors Elliot Taylor and Jaylin Bridges bring back a lot of experience for coach Carla Crowder as three-year starters, while fellow seniors Ally Van Enk and Abbey Allgood are getting their first crack at the starting five..

Cabot has moved from the 7A/6A Central to the 7A/6A East, which means the Lady Panthers have lost Conway as league opponents this year for the first time in six years, but they remain in the same conference as North Little Rock.

The Lady Wildcats are always a sure pick to be in the mix for any title run, and this year is no exception. Mountain Home, Little Rock Central and Marion could also prove to be formidable in the East conference this year, while Searcy and West Memphis could surprise after mixed early results for both teams. Jonesboro appears to be the odd team out after a difficult 0-6 start for the Lady Hurricane.

The Cabot boys got off to a sluggish 2-5 start, but the Panthers have always found a way to be competitive in league play against larger teams on most nights under ninth-year coach Jerry Bridges. North Little Rock and Jonesboro will most likely claim the top two spots in the East, but Marion, West Memphis and Little Rock Central have also been competitive early this season. Searcy and Mountain Home have struggled so far, but with six state-tournament seeds up for grabs, the race for third on back could get interesting before the end of February.