Tuesday, October 15, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Red Devils host plagued Falcons

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Red Devils will make their crosstown rival North Pulaski their homecoming guest when the two teams meet at 7 p.m. Friday at Jan Crow Stadium. Neither team is having the year they expected as the week-seven matchup looms. North Pulaski thought it had an opportunity to compete for a playoff spot for the first time in almost 30 years while Jacksonville felt it had a chance to set up a battle of unbeatens in a week-10 showdown with Pulaski Academy for the conference championship.

While things haven’t gone as hoped for either team, they both still have goals in mind to help salvage what’s so far been disappointing seasons. And while North Pulaski has never beaten Jacksonville, many games in this series have been more competitive than records and games against common opponents would indicate.

“North Pulaski is always going to put their best foot forward against Jacksonville,” said Red Devil coach Rick Russell. “We feel like we’re going to get their best game each and every year we play.”

North Pulaski (0-6, 0-3) started the season with more numbers, size and speed than in recent years, but that lineup hasn’t just been bitten by the injury bug, it’s suffered a downright plague. Seven starters won’t suit up on Friday, five with injuries, one with illness and one will be out of town for a funeral.

Four of the five injuries are season-ending, as well as the illness. One other injury, a knee injury suffered last week by tailback Fred Thomas, could be season-ending as well. The team is awaiting test results to see the extent of the injury. But Thomas won’t suit up Friday regardless of the results.

“It’s been a very tough year with injuries,” North Pulaski coach Teodis Ingram said. “It’s frustrating too because we did expect good things this year. We made some personnel adjustments to get people in the right places. We felt like we were on the brink of putting things together and then the injuries started piling up. So we’re back to trying to piece it together. One thing I can say about the kids is that they’re still playing hard.”

Junior Michael Barnes started the season at quarterback, but Ingram felt his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame was better suited at tight end, where he can help out an undersized line.

He was replaced by Hayden Dean, a 6-5 junior transfer from North Little Rock who started at quarterback in ninth grade. He’s one of the players now out for the year. Barnes will go back to quarterback this week. He ran the wishbone in week one before Dean took over and the Falcons’ switched to the spread.

Which offense they will run on Friday was still not certain on Tuesday.

“Michael can run both offenses,” Ingram said. “He might be a little limited in the passing game because he’s also got a sore shoulder. We’ll see how things go this week.”

Steven Farrior was the starting quarterback last year, but he will be out of town on Friday. Starting cornerback Cedric Handley, starting center Charlie Long and 6-3, 250-pound starting defensive end Keaton Nichols are also out for the year.

After three weeks of conference play, the two teams have no common opponents within the 5A Central. They did each play Maumelle in nonconference games. North Pulaski fell 42-0 to the Hornets in week two. The very next week, Jacksonville got its first win of the season, beating the Hornets 37-20 and handing them their only loss of the season so far.

Jacksonville has switched to a two-quarterback system in the last two weeks. Results have been mixed. Jacksonville beat McClellan two weeks ago then lost 25-16 to Sylvan Hills last Friday. Sophomore Robert Knowlin and senior Reggie Barnes led touchdown drives in last week’s loss, but neither style was able to generate much offense other than in those two drives. Both quarterbacks work out of the spread formation. Knowlin primarily runs the option while Barnes is the passing quarterback.

Knowlin left last week’s game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury, but will be ready to play this Friday.

“We thought he had pulled his hamstring but he was just cramping up,” Russell said of Knowlin. “He’s fine and he’ll be out there.”

Russell also says the homecoming crowd is likely to see both quarterbacks in action.

“We’re going into the game with a running game plan and a throwing game plan,” Russell said. “We’ll still have both offenses we’ve run the last two weeks and we’ll see which one is hot and how the game goes. But it’s time now we have to win.”

The Red Devils (2-4, 1-2) need to win at least three of its last four games to have a chance at the playoffs. There are currently four teams ahead of Jacksonville. Pulaski Academy and Sylvan Hills are undefeated. Mills and Helena-West Helena Central are 2-1 and Little Rock Christian Academy is tied with Jacksonville at 1-2. North Pulaski and McClellan are searching for their first win.

“It’s got to be at least four (wins),” Russell said. “You can’t even be sure of that because you never know, someone might sneak up and get an upset, and then you’ve got a tiebreaker situation. So we’re focusing on one game at a time. Right now our focus is entirely on North Pulaski. We’re going to see how we compete with them, and we’re going to move on to the next team. But it’s a must-win game.”