Saturday, January 05, 2013

SPORTS TORY >> Wants to succeed and works for it

Leader sports editor

Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Jacksonville senior Justin McCleary has grown into the player head coach Vic Joyner thought he would when he made him a rare freshman starter in the Red Devil basketball program. Joyner hardly ever plays freshmen on the varsity team, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. Four years ago he spotted a player in his middle-school program he felt could handle the test.

That player was McCleary, and today he still exhibits those skills, only now it’s in a taller, stronger body.

“First of all he was physically mature enough to do it,” Joyner said. “Most guys aren’t ready at 14 years old to play varsity at this level, but Justin had a senior-high body in ninth grade. Second was the mental aspect.”

McCleary, 6-foot-2, admits that his freshman year was his most difficult as a Red Devil guard. Finding things in common with teammates, especially the senior class, escaped him.

“It was fun but I just didn’t fit in with that team,” McCleary said. “It was hard at times, but you just keep working harder.”

Joyner still felt McCleary’s basketball ability was an asset. He says there have been other players come through his system that had the physical talent to help as freshmen, but didn’t have the stable temperament to handle the pressure of the game or from the older players.

“They didn’t like that this kid moved up and took some peoples’ spots and minutes,” Joyner said. “That’s going to happen to just about any freshman. I thought J Mac could handle it and he proved me right. There were times when I stepped in and stood up for him, but most of the time I wanted him to man up and handle it. And he did. He’s been the same ever since. I’m comfortable when he has the ball. He’s a steady hand.”

That steadiness is only one of the things that makes McCleary a leader on a team with a senior class that Joyner says is one of the best of his career.

“This whole group is a good group,” Joyner said. “They get the class work done. They go hard in practice. They’re just tight. It’s been that way since they started playing together. Most of them have been together since seventh grade. McCleary is the one with the most experience, so in that sense, this is his team. But this whole class plays a big role in whatever success we’re going to have.”

McCleary, son of Kevin and Evelyn McCleary, has at least a 3.5 grade-point average. He says it might be a 3.6. He’s already made a 21 on the ACT, which is well over the minimum requirement for eligibility to play NCAA Division I basketball.

He already has one DI offer from Central Arkansas, where three former Jacksonville teammates are currently on scholarship.

“I’d be excited to go there,” McCleary said. “It would be cool to go there because of all the Jacksonville players, but I’m going to wait and see what else comes up.”

Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., has shown serious interest and has come to Arkansas to watch McCleary play in person, but hasn’t yet come through with a hard offer. McCleary is intrigued by the Patriot League school, but isn’t sure why or how they became aware of him. Joyner knows.

“You have to have your grades and be getting it done in the classroom for them to even look at you,” Joyner said. “I sent some tapes out, but it was that and his work ethic in the class room that got them interested.”

McCleary says science comes easy to him and that he enjoys the subject more than others, which is one reason he plans to major in physical therapy. He still holds out for the possibility of a professional basketball career.

“I don’t really have any idea at all what I’m going to do after college,” McCleary said. “Whether it’s the NBA, or playing overseas or just becoming a physical therapist. I’m just going to go 100 percent in both areas and see where it leads to. I just want to succeed.”

McCleary could just about have his choice of the lower division schools, but for now he’s focusing on winning his first state title. He was in eighth grade the last time the Red Devils won it all. He made it back to the title game as a sophomore, and still feels the sting of not winning it all last year, despite being considered the 6A’s best team and having gone 4-0 in the regular season against the two teams that played for the championship.

“Winning it all, everything, that’s our goal,” McCleary said of this season. “I still can’t explain just what happened last year (in the semifinal loss to Jonesboro, a team Jacksonville mercy ruled earlier in the season). I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

This season has already included several memorable moments. The Red Devils are undefeated against highly-touted out-of-state opponents, with wins over teams from Memphis, Oklahoma City and Chicago. On a personal note, McCleary scored a career-high 31 points in the win over Olive Branch of the Memphis area.

“That was fun,” McCleary said. “Beating all those big-time teams, scoring a career high, those are definitely highlights, but we still want that state championship."