Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

SPORTS>>Jacksonville coach proud of his team’s achievement

By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor

Jacksonville couldn’t pull off two major upsets in the Class 6A state tournament in Jonesboro last week, but that fact doesn’t diminish the improbable run the Red Devils made to the semifinals. It all ultimately ended when the tournament host, and twice conqueror of Jacksonville, Jonesboro, put the Devils away Saturday night in the semifinals. That came only after the East conference’s four seed knocked off the Central winner and the state’s overall top-ranked Little Rock Hall in the quarterfinals.
That win messed up what most thought would be a battle of the “Big Four” that has been spoken about since midseason.
For the last several weeks, the talk has surrounded Jonesboro, Forrest City, Hall and Parkview. The other three made it to the semis; Jacksonville ruined the expected quartet. It was expected by most, but not all, especially not Jacksonville.

“We weren’t worried about pre-determined this or that, we just came out here to play,” Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner said after his team dismantled the No. 1 Warriors 75-55. “I’ve been in the position they were in. I’ve been No. 1 and I know what it’s like. The pressure was on them. They were the ones that had to prove they deserved to be ranked where they were. All we had to do was come out and play our game.”

Jacksonville’s game against the small but speedy Warriors was pound it inside, and pound it inside it did. Senior post player Gerron Riddles and sophomore post Antwan Lockhart combined for 22 points. Late in the game when Hall had to resort to fouling, the Red Devils shot free throws better than any other time this season.

Hall kept it close through three quarters, and threatened Jacksonville’s lead every time. The defense always found a way to step up, and the Red Devil post players always came through with a key basket or rebound at the opportune times. Leading the way in that regard was senior Gerron Riddles, who had one of his best games of the season.

“It’s the state tournament and it’s just time for the seniors to step up,” Riddles said. Senior leadership was a reccuring theme after the game, and Riddles’ sentiment was reiterated by senior guard LaMark Trask, who came off the bench to get some key off-side offensive rebounds, something he has found a knack for in the last few games.

“I struggle wtih my shot so I have to find ways to make up for that and contribute,” Trask, one of the more vocal players on the team, said. “The seniors talked about stepping up, but we all talked about it. We all knew it was time for people, seniors, junior, sophomores, all of us, to start stepping up and making plays and stop making mistakes.”

Joyner felt his team was awry at the start of the season, which made what it accomplished late in the year that much more satisfying. “We had some internal strife there for a while,” Joyner said. “We had to play all those game on the road right in a row and we got a few losses, got a few people upset, thinking they weren’t being used enough, or in the right way. But I loved coaching this team because we had a bunch of kid that grew up right in front of my eyes. Once everybody accepted their roles and realized it was for the betterment of the team, this team came around.”

Joyner started specifically with Trask, whose remarks after the Hall game were reiterated by Joyner. “LaMark Trask started doing the things he could do,” Joyner said. “We wanted him to use his ability around the basket instead of hanging around outside and trying to force himself to be a shooter. We tried working on his shooting early in the year, but we needed him to around the basket. We started posting him up on guards because he’s got good post moves. And he showed a knack for finding the ball. He had two huge offensive rebounds for us against Forrest City, and that’s what he kept doing. He started doing the things that would most benefit this team.”

Joyner also spoke highly of his point guards. Sophomore Antonio Washington pulled his game under control late in the year, and junior Tirrell Eskridge became one of the most talked about players no one knew about at the state tournament.
“One of the keys to this team’s resurgence was the point guards,” Joyner said. Tirrell grew up so much. I had more people at that tournament ask me about him than any other player.”

Joyner said the key to Riddles’ improvement was a commitment to getting in shape. “People say his shot was better and his footwork was better, but he always had all of that,” Joyner said. “What made the difference for him was his commitment to the physical training. He was able to move and maneuver a lot better and keep going longer because he was in shape. Another thing that helped us is that the guards finally realized that when the inside game is good, it makes the outside game better, and G always came through when they threw down in there.”

Senior Kajuan Watson led the team in scoring, was usually the one the team turned to when a big play was needed, but that was no surprise to Joyner from the beginning of the year.

“Kajuan was the only one on this team that had really been through the rigors of a whole season at this level of ball,” Joyner said. “He’s the only one that had been through the wars and he knew he had to be a leader on the floor and he did that.”
Joyner saved some is his highest praise for senior post player Norvel Gabriel, who did the little things that make a team good.
“Plain and simple, Gabe got the job done,” Joyner said. “He didn’t usually score a lot, but he did all the dirty work. He banged around with all those big boys in this league, led us in rebounding. He’d even start the break and get the assist. He got down and dirty and he got vocal late in the year. You take into account everything he did, that kid is a man. If you take him off this team, we don’t win 17 games, no way in the world. He made a huge different to this basketball team.”

One of the biggest advantages of getting to the semfinals was the experience it gave the younger players, even the ones that didn’t get on the court. Jacksonville loses seven seniors off this team, but has some talented underclassmen that Joyner is expecting to step up next season.

“Like I said, we’re trying to get this program used to be in this position. That’s why we brought all those young kids with us, to get that hunger. You get to see why you run all those miles and lift all those weights. You see the excitment of the kids on the bus and in pre-game. We’re trying to get this program used to being in that situation, and this team took a great big step for this program by accomplishing what it accomplished this year.”