Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

SPORTS >>Devils up for tough game at Texarkana

By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor

It isn’t the matchup that everyone invisioned for Jacksonville in the first round of the class 6A football state playoffs, but it isn’t exactly what Texarkana had invisioned either. By at least one ranking, the third game down the bracket’s first round features the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the state. While Texarkana coach Bill Keopple wouldn’t have minded a different visitor for his first round, he takes a logical attitude into the game.

“You’re going to have to play the best sooner or later anyway,” Keoplle said. “That’s the way it’s set up and that’s the way it ought to be I guess. We’ll just take ‘em one at a time.” The story line for this game is driven by the contrasting conferences the two teams represent. Both teams are conference champions, but Mark Whatley’s Red Devils tied with three other teams, and by rule, had to accept the four seed. Texarkana is the outright, undisputed supreme team from the 6A-South. However, even Keoplle admits that his league wasn’t quite as strong as the East.

“ I think there’s a lot of talent in this league,” Keoplle said of the South. “For whatever reasons, we have a bunch of teams that never could get it all together and they sort of underachieved a little bit. Whether we had something to do with that or not, that’s hard to tell. I’d like to think we did. We’ll find out because Jacksonville has played in a lot of tough ball games.”
The fact that Texarkana coasted through its conference, including five mercy-rule victories of its seven league opponents, is looked at in opposite ways by the opposing coaches.

“I think it’s a plus for us actually,” Keopple said. “We had some key injuries early and those big wins let us get our main guys off the field and rested. We have a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs. We’re healthy, fresh and eager to get in there and get after it.”

Jacksonville coach Mark Whatley looks at it a different way. “My team is battle tested,” Whatley said. “I know my team, and I know my kids will fight through any adversity they come across. I don’t know if he knows that about his team. We’ve been busted in the mouth and we’ve fought back. They haven’t faced that yet, so they don’t know just how they’re going to react when it happens.”

Jacksonville runs an offense similar to some of the teams in the South, so it won’t be anything new for the Razorbacks to prepare for. The difficulty the Hogs face is the personnel Jacksonville will take to the southern border. “We’ve seen the offense, but we haven’t seen anyone run it with the kind of tools Jacksonville has to run it with,” Keopple said. “The quarterback is big, has good footwork and can deliver the ball. And we sure don’t have anyone in our league with the receivers they’ve got, especially the King kid. He’s a specimen.”

Keopple is also impressed with Jacksonville’s running back tandem of Justin Akins and Lee Robinson. He readily admits it’s the best duo his team has faced since playing Texarkana, Tex. In week one, but also believes he has the single best back in the state, and a pretty tandem himself. “Dennis Johnson is a major division 1 talent,” Keopple said. “He got hurt against Central and missed our first three conference games, and that really helped us as a team I believe. It gave us a chance to get Derek Wesley in there, and he really played well. He came over from Texas High, and he’s speedster. They’ve got Akins though, and he’s right there with my two in the speed department. You have to know where he is.”

Whatley agrees that those two backs will be tough to stop, but again, sees the scenario differently. “I know his kid is talented, but I don’t know his kid,” Whatley said. “I know mine, and I’d take mine.” Whatley is just as, if not more concerned with the Razorback defense. His offense still has not played as consistently as he wants, but his defense has made necessary stops all season long.

“What stands out to me as that they can all run,” Whatley said. “As a whole, that defense can fly to the football. They are fast, fast, fast. Their defensive end is powerful and fast. He has the best bull rush we’ve seen all year and they move him around a lot. We’re going to have to be more consistent if we want to move the ball on this team. They’ve put up some phenomenal numbers and they get games in control in a hurry. We’d better be on our game.”