SPORTS >> Ex-teammates now rivals
Leader sports writer
The talk surrounding this week’s matchup between Jackson-ville and Forrest City has revolved mostly around the side story of the two head coaches involved in the matchup. Jacksonville’s Mark Whatley and Forrest City’s Scott Reed were teammates on the last Red Devil state championship team in 1981, and have remained friends over the years.
While the fans may be talking about it, the coaches themselves are downplaying the story line, and rightfully so. This game not only has playoff implications, but potential conference championship implications as well.
Whatley barely spoke of the side story.
“We’re not playing,” Whatley said. “We’ve both got a bunch of kids working their tails off playing this game. We’ve stayed in touch. He’s a great guy, a great coach who’s had a lot of success and he’s doing an outstanding job turning that program around. I have all the respect in the world for him. Other than that, it’s his team I’m concerned with this week.”
His counterpart, a good friend and former teammate, also downplayed the significance of the coaching story, but did talk about the friendship, and what it will be like coming back to Jan Crow Stadium for the first time in many years.
“Mark and I played on the same baseball team together in the 6th grade, and played together from then on up,” Reed said. “We’ve played a lot of games together and he was a heckuva teammate. I’m very happy for him and it looks like he’s got ‘em rolling. They’re a lot better now than they were at the beginning of the season. This is a big, big game for both teams, any way you slice it. I’ve played in some big games at that stadium, and it’s going to be very odd for me standing on that other sideline.
“But as far as that being important to this game, I don’t really think so. Mark and I have had our time. This is for our kids that have worked so hard to make this game so important.”
Whatley and Reed were somewhat less than satisfied with their teams’ performances last week.
Jacksonville beat Searcy 31-20, but it wasn’t as complete a performance as Whatley wanted to see after showing steady improvement in every game over the previous three weeks.
Jacksonville missed a couple of opportunities to score that likely would have sealed the game much earlier than it did. They also missed an assignment or two on defense that allowed the Lions to score.
“Defensively it was just a couple of busted assignments, mistakes we hadn’t been making lately,” Whatley said. “We can fix that. Rick (defensive coordinator Rick Russell) has done an outstanding job with the defense this year and I’m sure we’ll get those mistakes corrected.”
The offense doesn’t need a lot of correcting, according to the head coach. It just needs to be more opportunistic.
“We just need to be a little more potent running the offense,” Whatley said. “There were a couple different times when we had everything in place to score and just didn’t for different reasons. We could make it easier on ourselves if we would be more potent and score on those plays when it’s there.”
Reed wanted to see his team finish better than it did in a 23-21 win over Sylvan Hills.
The Mustangs were up 23-7 with less than a minute remaining, but the Bears scored twice in the final minute, but failed to convert a two-point try that would have sent the game into overtime.
“We’re going to have to do a lot of things better to even compete this week,” Reed aid. “Most teams have guys, where you bust an assignment, they’re going to get 10 or 12 yards on you. Jacksonville has a couple of guys that will hang six on you no matter where they are on the field. We’re going to have to play our responsibilities, and play smart.”
Reed said the offense had the same task.
“They’ve got guys on defense that just seem to have a nose for the football,” Reed said. “We’re going to have to be safe with it, and accurate.”
Forrest City throws the ball around a lot, but it’s also got a big bruising running back named Ben Wright that has wreaked havoc on opposing defenses lined up to stop the passing game.
“Oh he’s a load,” Whatley said. “He’s a rumbler and a stumbler and we’re going to have to gang- tackle him. We’ve got to make sure we bring him down because you can’t just run up and knock him down. People bounce off him that do that.”
Reed says Wright’s and the running game’s role will likely be determined at game time.
“I just don’t know,” Reed said. “We’ve had games where I thought we’d have to pass for 200 yards to win, and the running game did well. Then we’ve had games where I thought we’d have to be able to run, and the passing game hurt ‘em a lot.”
When asked what he thinks will work against Jacksonville, Reed responded, “We’re still looking. I just don’t know yet.”