Wednesday, April 03, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Appleby shining at LA Tech

Leader sports editor

Of all the dozens of former Jacksonville Red Devil basketball players to move up and play college basketball in recent years, none have experienced the kind of success that Louisiana Tech guard Raheem Appleby has experienced in his first two years at the Conference USA school. Appleby returned to Jacksonville High School on Friday to take part in a benefit game to raise money for state championship rings earned by the JHS boys and girls teams. Appleby’s younger sister, sophomore Shakyla Hill, was the starting point guard for the Lady Red Devils. Appleby was on Jacksonville’s title team in 2010.

“It’s real special for both of us to have a championship now,” Appleby said. “I’m very proud of her and what her and that team has been able to accomplish.”

He worked himself into the starting lineup just a few games into his freshman year at Louisiana Tech, and was the team’s leading scorer this season as a sophomore. He averaged 14.9 points per game and scored 30 or more twice this year. In his lone visit back to central Arkansas, he hit the game-winning shot to beat UALR at Jack Stephens Center.

By all accounts, Appleby had a great freshman year, but the Bulldog coaching staff saw room for improvement. They wanted to make a drastic change that Appleby wasn’t entirely comfortable with at first.

“They told me I needed to change my shot,” Appleby said. “They said I shoot too much of a set shot and that I needed to get elevation. It was hard at first but I did it and I think it’s helped me.”

A willingness to take coaching has helped Appleby throughout his career. It’s a skill players either have, or develop, while playing for Jacksonville High School’s demanding coach Vic Joyner. Appleby believes coming from such a program helped him be more successful earlier than many other freshmen.

“Everybody in this level is really good, as far as talent,” Appleby said. “Some guys adjust to it better than others. I think there are a lot of factors, but the program they come from is definitely one of them. It’s a lot more physically demanding in college. Practices are a lot harder with a lot more conditioning. Some guys can adjust to it and they get better. But it is a lot of hard work.”

Appleby has kept up in the classroom and is on pace academically to be a junior next year. He says the toll on the players to keep up with class work is not as difficult as it’s sometimes made out to be.

“If you do your schedule right you can work it out where you’ve got time to get stuff done you need to get done,” Appleby said. “They have people that help you with that. After that you just have to do it. It’s just up to you.”

Appleby is majoring in sociology but is thinking about changing majors before his upperclassman years begin and work towards majors starts in earnest.

On the court, the Bulldogs finished 27-7 and went undefeated, 14-0, at home. They claimed the season’s second-longest winning streak at 18 games and appeared to be on their way to an NCAA tournament berth when that 18th consecutive win left them 26-3 and unbeaten in conference play. But things fell apart from there. Tech lost its last two regular-season games against conference co-champ Denver and second-place New Mexico State. Tech then fell in the first round of the conference tournament.

“We thought we had a chance to get in even after losing those last two,” Appleby said. “But we didn’t play well in that tournament game and that cost us.”

The Bulldogs shined on their biggest stage of the season in the first round of the NIT, beating the ACC’s Florida State 71-66, and Appleby shining brightest by scoring 27 points.

The season came to an end in round two with a 63-52 loss to Southern Miss, but the future looks bright for the Bulldogs. They only lose two seniors who averaged 19 and 10 minutes per game. Everyone else returns, including the entire starting five and the first four off the bench.

“We improved a lot from last year to this year, and if we can keep on improving we have a chance to be a really good team next year.”