Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

SPORTS >>Red Devil intensity needs to rise

By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Red Devils lost most of their offense from last year’s team that advanced to the state playoffs for the first time in several years and sent three players to college. They head into this season with only one returning starter, and he is out with a broken hand for at least the first few games. That leaves Red Devil coach Vic Joyner with the task of finding players to fill gaps and put points on the board this season.

The team’s top two scorers graduated and signed college scholarships. Only senior Kajuan Watson returns as a starter, but there are some quality players back that saw a lot of minutes last season. Most are big and bulky, and the Red Devils will try to utlize that strength.

“We’re not going to have any problems with size,” Joyner said. “We don’t have anybody that’s going to tower over people, but we’re going to have some bulk and a lot of strength down on that block. We got some big kids.” Gerron Riddles and Norvel Gabriel, who is still with the football team, provide most of the returning experience down low. Both are strong players, and will be helped by fellow seniors Marcus King and Ryan Gooden. King is also in football, and Gooden has performed extremely well when he does what Joyner asks of him.”

“He dominates practice when he’ll stay down low and not pop out on the perimeter,” Joyner said. “He just wants to keep doing that and that’s he and I clash. He’s going to play the post when I say or he’s going to be passing out water bottles.”
Sophomores Antwain Lockhart and Cortrell Eskridge, as well as junior Damian Akins, will also provide a lift on the low block. Both are in the 6-foot-3 range, and both have good strength for their age.

“We should be solid inside if we can ever get everybody playing hard,” Joyner said. “Right now that’s our main problem. We were pretty pitiful in the jamboree because we didn’t hustle, and we’ve got too much inexperience not to hustle.” The Red Devils made a lot of mistakes in their half-games against Little Rock Parkview and Little Rock Central, but that’s not what had the head Red Devil upset.

“We’re not really a young team, but we don’t have but a couple of guys with much court experience at this level,” Joyner said. “When you’re as inexperienced as we are, you’ve got to hustle. We’re going to make mistakes and go through some growing pains. I know that. We’re just going to have to hustle and scrap and make up for those mistakes. We didn’t do that and we’re going to get killed in this league if we don’t start doing that.”

Joyner lost two outstanding shooters from last year, but feels he has a better overall shooting team this season. That starts with sophomore guard Antonio Washington. He will play point most of the time, and will share those duties with junior Terrell Eskridge. The starting two guard is projected as senior Antwain Robinson, who transferred back to Jacksonville this year after a year at Mills.

“Washington is a point guard that can score,” Joyner said. “Terrell is a kid that I should have played more on varsity last year. He’s steady and he’ll get the offense going. Robinson is on the cusp of becoming the player I’ve been waiting for him to become. He’s lagging on defense and that’s why he’s not high on my list like he wants to be, but if he’ll pick up the effort and intensity level, he can break out.”

Joyner wouldn’t begin to predict who would win the brutal 6A-East conference. He, as most have, said it starts with Forrest City. The Mustangs have three Division I prospects on their roster, two of whom are seniors. “Forrest City’s lineup is frightening,” Joyner said. “West Memphis is wounded because they didn’t make the playoffs last year. You don’t looking at them anyway, and now they’re playing like a wounded animal. They’re hungry and Bray you know is going to have them ready. Jonesboro got almost everybody back. Sylvan Hills always has talent. Searcy has everybody back and one of the best coaches around. This whole conference is loaded with coaches that you just have to be on your game against. They make changes mid-stride and you have to be ready to adjust. I don’t know much about Marion, but everything I hear is that the coach down there is poised to take over everything. There’s just not any breathing room in this league.”

That’s precisely why Joyner is worried about his team’s inexperience. “Watson is the only one that really went through that war last year,” Joyner said. “I don’t know, actually I do know, that most of these kids don’t really understand right now what this league is like. They don’t understand that they can’t let up, not even in practice. You’ve got to have your hard hat on every day or you’re going to get your head handed to you. I’m trying to drive that point home right now. We’ve got a long way to go though.”