SPORTS >> Beyond driven: Jacksonville senior finds his inner drive on and off court
Leader sports editor
He says he’s shy, he speaks like an intellectual, he acts like a driven force, and those who know him say he’s all of those things. Airic Hughes, a senior guard for the Jacksonville basketball team, hasn’t seen much of the spotlight early in his career at JHS, but has made the most of his senior season.
He made himself known immediately, leading the team with 16 points in its season-opening win against North Little Rock. It was the first time in several years that Jacksonville had beaten the Charging Wildcats, and Hughes was the player of the game.
His efforts earned him The Leader’s Spotlight Player honor that week.
Immediately after that game, first-year Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner was asked where this kid came from, but Joyner wasn’t at all surprised by the play of his team’s smallest member.
“I don’t know why nobody’s heard of Airic Hughes,” Joyner said. “When I got here, it didn’t take long to see he has more drive, and is willing to work harder than anybody we got. He’s just driven. He wants to get better and he’ll do what you ask him to do in order to get better. I love coaching kids like that.”
Hughes toiled on the junior varsity team last year, but admitted he wasn’t happy there. Once Joyner came in, he knew what he had to do.
“Last year was like someone was putting restraints on me, but I didn’t get too upset about it,” Hughes said. “My grandma, I talk to her a lot about things, she told me to just be patient, keep working hard and trust in God. I trust her so I did what she said.”
Hughes and the rest of the Red Devils went through most of the summer not knowing who their coach was going to be, but it didn’t matter to Hughes.
“I just wanted to play. I was going to work as hard as I could all the time. So whoever the coach was, wouldn’t have a chance not to play me.”
When Joyner left rival North Pulaski to take over at JHS, his impact was also immediate, and good, according to Hughes.
“You could just tell the intensity was up,” Hughes said.
“You either come with it 100 percent, or get out. Offseason was grueling. We were lifting weights three times a day. We were running. He put a big emphasis on conditioning, but that’s good. That’s what we needed. He told us when we were running that we were going to be in better shape than the teams we were playing. He told us we’re going to see guys on the other team tired, bending over trying to catch their breath. He was right. We’ve seen that.”
The Red Devils are currently 7-2, which is miles ahead of where they were at this time last year, but it’s still not enough for Hughes, who says he’s not even close to satisfied.
“I’m not satisfied at all,” Hughes said.
“We could be playing a lot better. We’ve made too many mistakes. I’m one of them. I had a big turnover against Russellville that helped them come back on us in that game. We have to learn to put teams away. We didn’t do that. We should only have one loss.”
Hughes was referring to a 30-point drubbing the Devils took from Forrest City earlier this season, but he says he still wouldn’t be satisfied had they beaten the Mustangs. “I’m not satisfied until we hang a banner,” Hughes said. “There’s not any basketball banners in that gym. I want a championship banner, at least a conference, and hopefully also a state.”
Hughes understands the difficulty in getting a banner this season. The Red Devils play in the AAAAA-East, which some say is the strongest conference the state has seen in several years. But Hughes in undaunted by the monumental task of beating all those teams enough times to win that banner.
“The good thing is we have a legit shot to do it,” Hughes said. “I know what people are saying about the conference, but I know what they’re saying about us too. And we have a legit shot to do this.
“I’m glad the conference is considered that tough because that’s who you want to measure yourself against, the best.”
Hughes’ love for his school runs deeper than that of the ordinary student or fan. He hearkens back to his childhood days of watching DaShaun Ford run the court in the Devils’ Den, and remembers wanting to play in this gym back then.
Now that he’s there, he feels at home, especially with a big part of his home sitting in the top left corner of the bleachers of home games.
“My grandma comes to every game and sits in the same spot, and I love that,” Hughes said. “It’s comforting to look up there during a timeout or something and see her there. I already know she’s going to be there, but it’s nice to look up there and see her.”
The 5-foot-9 senior’s life runs deeper than basketball. He carries a 3.8 grade-point average and scored a 25 on his ACT. He’s currently hoping that his application to academically esteemed Baylor University is accepted.
He doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do in life, but he knows he wants to study history at Baylor. The processes of life have always carried a fascination for him.
“It’s always been interesting to me how people deal with major hardships,” Hughes said. “I think about stuff like that all the time. Why do cultures act like they do and have their practices and rituals and things like that? Why do rulers treat people like they do? I think about why there’s so much persecution.”
Hughes also understands that history can only tell him that those things happened, and that his questions teeter between history and philosophy. But he says he hasn’t come up with many answers.
“No I haven’t,” Hughes said. “Not any good ones.”
Although he says he doesn’t know what he wants to pursue as a career, he does already have at least one option in mind, an option that stems from his love and loyalty for Jacksonville.
“I don’t know what I want to do, but I know I wouldn’t mind coming back here and coaching Jacksonville,” Hughes said. “It’s where I feel at home. I just like it here.”