Leader Blues

Friday, December 19, 2008

SPORTS>> Falcons starting strong

Leader sportswriter

Fourth-year North Pulaski High School coach Raymond Cooper has been busy building a powerhouse program since his arrival at the school in 2005. For a school not known for its athletic prowess, the Falcon basketball team has a chance this season to be among the best in Class 5A.

The tradition began under current Jacksonville head coach Vic Joyner, who coached current University of Arkansas-Little Rock guard Steven Moore when the two were at North Pulaski four years ago.

After narrowly missing the playoffs last season, the Falcons are off to a solid start this year, winning their first seven games before suffering a pair of setbacks in the Wampus Cat Invitational tournament in Conway last week.

Those two losses came at the hands of Conway, last year’s 7A runner up, and local rival Jacksonville in the third-place final.
Strong shooting and full-court pressure serve as the Falcons’ calling cards, along with enough depth to allow for near limitless substitution.

“It’s pretty unique in that we have a lot of skill guys, which makes it fun to coach them,” said Cooper (40-45 record at NP). “But it’s also a double-edged sword because we have a weakness in that we don’t have a lot of inside presence offensively. But we’ve tried to do unique things to try and get easy baskets with penetration and defense, which makes the game up-tempo.”

The strength and weaknesses of the Falcons can be summed up by their post position, which is shared by senior Carlos Donley and sophomore Brian Coulson. Strength, in that Donley is one of only two seniors on the team that will be lost at the end of the season. Weakness, in that they are the only two players on the team that exceed 6-2.

“Brian Coulson is a sophomore who has come in and played a lot of minutes,” Cooper said. “He’s learning, he’s playing hard, and between him and Carlos, we kind of look at them as one guy.

“Their numbers by themselves may not look that great, but we want them to have a double-double between the two of them.

By them subbing for each other, that allows them to play harder. That’s the strategy we’re looking at with them. One of them may not stand out alone, but the two of them together, we think they can do a good job.”

That lack of height does not translate into timidness on the court. In fact, the Falcons’ smallest player, 5-0 junior guard Joe
Agee, is their hardest-nosed. Agee gives up more than a foot of height to his opponent on most nights, but that hasn’t deterred him from emerging as a team leader this year.

“I wish we had everybody come out with his intensity,” Cooper said. “Even in the Conway game, he comes out with that kind of intensity. I can’t say enough about him. A lot of the things he does emotionally, a lot of the things he does as a leader, a lot of the things he does defensively – small things like diving on the floor, and he doesn’t mind mixing it up with big guys.

“He’s a dream to coach because he’s the same way in practice every day. I’d take one of him every year.”

What the Falcons may lack in overall size, they compensate for in depth. Of the 14 players listed on the roster, 10 have seen significant playing time in most of the games.

The talent is abundant, especially when it comes to the duo of juniors Daquan Bryant and Aaron Cooper, the coach’s son.

Aaron is the second of Cooper’s sons to play for him. Quinn, now a sophomore at Lyon College, was a team captain for the first two years of Ray Cooper’s tenure.

Aaron leads the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game, accounting for almost a third of the Falcons’ total points. Bryant is next with an 11.5 average, and is the leading rebounder with 6.5 per game.

“Numbers-wise and production-wise, they’ve done well,” Cooper said. “I’m trying to get them both to take a step and be a little more like Joe, because Joe’s more vocal. He really wears his heart on his sleeve, and he goes out there and lays it all on
the line.

“Aaron has stepped up some and become more vocal. Neither one of them are real emotional kind of kids, they’re just kind of even keel.”

This season will be the first year back in the 5A Southeast Conference after spending two years in the 5A East. The Southeast has some strong contenders in Little Rock McClellan local foe Sylvan Hills, but may not be as tough throughout as the East, according to Cooper.

“I look at it as at the top, it’s tough,” Cooper said. “And the thing about the 5A East was, it was tough from top to bottom.

Even some of the bottom teams, especially going to their home courts were really, really tough. I’m not sure that this conference has quite the balance that it had.”

Of all the potential new rivals, it will be hard for any to match that of their hometown 6A rivals Jacksonville. The two teams face off at least four scheduled times each year, in addition to chance meetings in tournaments.

The two schools have battled twice already, splitting the first two games. The Falcons took the first game 49-43 in late November before Jacksonville got its revenge in a 57-51 win in Conway. The two teams were set for a third meeting last night, this time at the Falcons’ Nest, North Pulaski’s home gym.

“I thought the Jacksonville game was probably the best game for us,” Cooper said. “We had to win in a different kind of way.

And we won it in a hostile environment, plus Jacksonville is traditionally a good team, and they’re a perennial playoff team. We get tired of playing each other, but in the long run, I think it’s good for both of us.

“In the 5A, we won’t face a team that is as athletic, or have the size across the board as Jacksonville does. So it helps us prepare for those games on the road in the conference and hopefully, it prepares us for those tougher teams in the tournaments.”

Cooper is aware of the school’s struggles athletically and takes it all in stride. He said he hopes that his team’s success can spill into other sports.

“I welcome that, because I think North Pulaski is a good school,” Cooper said. “And we’re striving as an athletic program to do things and to get better.

“We don’t consider ourselves as carrying the banner for the school, we’re just doing the best we can to do our part. And we think that our other programs are coming along, and we’re all going to do better.

“Our administration has been committed, and has done things to try and better the program as a whole.”