Wednesday, March 06, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Boys to face Airedales

Leader sports editor

After emerging triumphant in the semifinal showdown with top-ranked Clarksville, the Jacksonville Red Devils now face two-time champion Alma in the class 5A state championship game Friday at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock.

Jacksonville (24-4) will make its third championship-game appearance in five years, winning one of those two class 6A title games.

Alma won the class 5A championship in 2007 and 2011, both times against teams from central Arkansas.

Alma coach Stan Flenor believes his team will be considered an underdog, but has confidence in his team to beat the odds the way it did in previous years.

“We were underdogs against Mills and with good reason,” Flenor said. “Mills had won it the year before. When we beat Sylvan Hills, I think a lot of people had them picked with the star player and all that. But I really felt like we had the deeper and more experienced team that year.”

Alma won’t be as deep as Jacksonville is on Friday, but it will have two seniors, Brock Wither and Gage Jensen, that played significant roles in the 2011 championship season. That kind of experience is irreplaceable, according to Flenor.

“Those two have been there and know what’s involved,” Flenor said. “They’re not going to get rattled. They’ve been great leaders for us all season and the rest of the guys have grown up around them as the season progressed.”

Jacksonville had been under pressure this season as well. The Red Devils played a murderous nonconference schedule. Three of its four losses have come to teams playing this weekend in their respective championship games. They lost twice by eight points to class 7A North Little Rock in a home-and-home series. They lost by eight points to Jonesboro, who plays Hall in the 6A title game, in the Arkansas Hoops Challenge. Jacksonville’s accomplishments aren’t lost on Flenor.

“They’ve played some very good teams and they’ve been a 6A powerhouse the last several years,” Flenor said. “We’ve lost twice to Clarksville and they beat them in a pressure-packed game. But like I said, this team isn’t going to get rattled by pressure. We’re going to play hard and play our game. We like to play fast. We feel like that’s what we’re good at and that’s what we’re going to try to do in this game.”

Jacksonville coach Victor Joyner welcomes a fast-paced approach by the Airedales.

“Let them run,” Joyner said. “If they want to play fast, come out running. We’ll love that.”

The Airedales play a style of basketball that can be difficult to defend in the halfcourt set, just as Harrison learned in the semifinals. Alma’s constant lane penetration either produced a bucket or a Harrison foul. It’s an offense that Joyner hates to defend.

“There’s no secret what they’re going to do,” Joyner said. “They’re going to dribble-drive and kick out, dribble-drive and try to get a layup or foul. What’s a defense supposed to do? You can’t just let them go by you so there’s almost always going to be contact, and nine times out of 10 the officials are going to call it on the defense. You just have to move your feet and get in position.”

In fact, Joyner says his team’s success in Friday’s game will come down to its ability to defend on the ball.

“We just have to defend the ball,” Joyner said. “Our ball contain has to be good. We have to keep it in front of us because everything they do is predicated on that penetration. If we get behind on the drive and players have to start rotating, that’s going to free up the shooters. Defending the ball is what this comes down to.”

Guard play has been the staple for Jacksonville this season, led by three seniors with key roles. Aaron Smith is the team’s leading scorer. Justin McCleary is the floor general who also averages 16 points per game.

Kevin Richardson is the team’s best overall athlete who usually comes off the bench to provide the team’s best on-ball defense. But Jacksonville goes about 12 deep and Joyner doesn’t think this game comes down to any one player, or even a handful of players.

“This is everybody’s game,” Joyner said. “They all have to execute and they’ve done that for the most part. They got us here and that’s what you want. You want an opportunity to play for a championship. They have that opportunity, so now they just have to keep doing what they’ve done. This group has done all the right things. They work hard in practice. They play together. They don’t care who gets the glory. They just work together and that’s what’s got them this far.”