Tuesday, October 07, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Bears flying high into Jacksonville

Leader sports editor

It’s always been a healthy, evenly matched rivalry, but the Jacksonville vs. Sylvan Hills meetings have seen in increase in intensity over the last few years. That’s not expected to change much this week when the two teams meet at 7 p.m. at Jan Crow Stadium.

This year’s matchup, on paper, doesn’t appear to be all that even. The undefeated Bears have scarcely been challenged so far, with a 13-point win over Hot Springs Lakeside being its smallest margin of victory, and no one has slowed down the Sylvan Hills offense.

Sylvan Hills is averaging 49.4 points per game and its average margin of victory is 32.8. Jacksonville is 1-4 and has struggled offensively all season. The Red Devils did appear to take a huge step in the right direction last week, nearly beating Beebe if not for a string of bad luck and bad calls that went against them.

Despite looking like the heavy favorite on paper, Sylvan Hills coach Jim Withrow doesn’t think it’s wise to take the Red Devils lightly.

“The records haven’t mattered a whole lot in games like this,” said Withrow. “I think as the season has come along, they’ve gotten better. That was a late transition for them with the new coach, and it looks like it’s going in the right direction.”

First year Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham liked what he saw from his team last week, but admits the nature of the loss was still affecting the team on Monday.

“It wasn’t the liveliest practice Monday because we’re still reeling I think,” said Hickingbotham. “That was a tough loss, a tough one to take. That game cut deep. These guys were hurting after that game. They put a lot into it. We talked about it after practice because we realized people were dragging. So we’re going to put it behind us and try to build up each day to Friday. Hopefully we’ll be back up and ready to go.”

Even if spirits are high by Friday, it’s a big challenge that lies in front of the Red Devils. Sylvan Hills’ defensive line isn’t as big as Beebe’s, which gave Jacksonville tremendous trouble in the passing game. Even so, Hickingbotham knows a big key to producing better numbers on offense is better blocking.

“We just have to block better,” Hickingbotham said. “It’s all about execution and cleaning up plays – finding the right man to pick up and cleaning up the mistakes. I feel like as a team we have improved each week and that’s all you can ask from a young team like this.”

Each team has an offensive weapon that opposing defenses will have to be wary of on every play.

The difference is, Sylvan Hills’ best weapon, quarterback Tra Doss, touches the ball on every play, while Jacksonville’s Lamont Gause only got it nine times last week against Beebe after the Badgers made a defensive adjustment that halted the running game.

Despite the few touches, Withrow is very concerned about No. 5.

“He’s a difference maker,” Withrow said. “He is a big-time difference maker. You have to play perfect technique because he’s the kind that’ll exploit any little mistake and go score. And I’ll tell you something else, that No. 3 (Treasean Lambert), he can play. They haven’t had much success yet, but it’s not like we’re going out there against a team that doesn’t have any weapons. They’ve got some playmakers and they’ll beat somebody if you take them lightly.”

Doss is averaging 11.6 yards per carry so far this season and has rushed 46 times for a total of 532 yards and 13 touchdowns. But he’s not just a running threat. He’s also completed 23 of 39 pass attempts for 545 yards and five touchdowns.

He suffered a high ankle sprain last week against J.A. Fair, but is expected to play this Friday, though he’ll sit out most of practice this week.

“He don’t have to practice when you’re that good,” Hickingbotham said. “We’re not expecting him to be slowed down at all.”

Even if he is, Withrow is more than comfortable with his backup, sophomore Jordan Washington.

“I feel very good about putting Washington back there, and I feel good about the guy behind him,” Withrow said. “Joe Craft does a great job in practice and he’s the kind of guy that can lead a team if he has to. I’ll tell you something else; I like both of my ninth-grade quarterbacks too. In all my years coaching, this is the best group of five quarterbacks I’ve ever had. They can all play.”

Doss is far from Sylvan Hills’ only weapon. Running back Fred Williams is on pace for a 1,000-yard season with 436 yards and 11 touchdowns on 63 carries. Marlon Clemmons could even become a third 1,000-yard rusher if the Bears go deep into the playoffs. He has 37 carries for 348 yards and four touchdowns, plus five receptions for 205 yards and two scores, which leads the team.

That’s not to mention Nathan Thomas, who led the team in receiving last year, Washington, who is already garnering attention from colleges as a receiver, Cameron Dews, whose 6-foot-4 height makes him a difficult matchup, and Elijah Sowards, who emerged with two touchdown catches at tight end last week.

“It’s just weapons all over the field,” Hickingbotham said. “And you have to know where they all are. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”