Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SPORTS >> A look back on a remarkable season

Leader sports editor

Pear trees are in bloom and azalea bushes are budding. Pollen is in full flight and people everywhere are reaching for their handkerchiefs and their Claritin.

Yes, spring is upon us, meaning the squeak of sneakers and the thud of basketball on hardwood has been replaced by the crack, err …, ping of the bat and the pop of ball in mitt.

Yet, it’s not too late to take one last look back at basketball season and one quick look ahead to next winter and our area teams’ prospects.

It’s hard for me to quite let go of this past season, special as it was with 16 of our 20 area teams reaching state. It culminated with a Jacksonville championship in as dramatic a fashion as you could hope for. (Although head coach Victor Joyner, whose team led by nine with 3:53 left, probably would have just as happily accepted the title without all the drama). The Red Devils captured their first-ever state basketball crown when Deshone McClure hit two free throws with 1.2 seconds left in their 63-62 win over Little Rock Hall on March 14.

The stars seemed to be in alignment for Jacksonville this season and a loss to Hall would have been a bitter pill to swallow. The Red Devils’ success this year was forged in the turmoil of last year’s 3-9 start. Everyone returned with the exception of point guard Terrell Eskridge, a big loss as it turned out, as it left Jacksonville with a hole at the position that it never quite filled.

Next year, Laquinton Miles, Demetrius Harris, Antwan Lockhart, Cortrell Eskridge, Antonio Roy, Darrius Morant and Stan Appleby depart, or about 80 percent of the Red Devil scoring.

Two other area teams were fortunate enough to reach the title game, but not so fortunate as to win it. Lonoke’s girls suffered their third consecutive Hot Springs heartache. This year, the Lady Jackrabbits were the victims of Shiloh Christian’s big Megan Herbert and a veteran Lady Saint squad, as well as their own futility shooting the basketball.

From the outside, it’s easy and glib to say Lonoke should be happy to have been on the brink three straight years (and in the long view, it is something remarkable that the Lady Jackrabbits can always look back to with pride), but there has to be a hole in their hearts.

Next year, they should have another opportunity to fill it. Everyone, with the exception of Emily Shoemaker and Lauren Harper will return. The sensational guard trio of Michaela Brown, Ashleigh Himstedt and Cara Neighbors will rejoin dominating post player Asiah Scribner in another quest next winter. If coach Nathan Morris can plug in some new role players to develop sufficient depth, those four returning starters should have the talent, experience and, most importantly, the hunger to play for the trophy again.

North Pulaski’s boys, too, will return just about everyone. Only big man Carlos Donley and speedy slasher Jerald Blair will graduate, leaving the solid nucleus of Aaron Cooper, Daquan Bryant and Kyron Ware behind. The Falcons will have the extra incentive of trying to erase the memories of a 19-percent shooting nightmare in their loss to Greene County Tech in the 5A state championship on March 14.

It may take winning the crown to get that one behind them.

Sixteen of our 20 area teams reached state this year, a remarkable 80 percent. The Lonoke boys’ sensational senior class of Michael Howard, Clarence Harris, Lance Jackson, ‘Juice’ Lambert, Pierre Smith and Trenton Spencer conclude their fine three-year run, which included a state title in 2008. Coach Wes Swift will be looking to reload.

The Beebe girls, who lost a 14-point lead heading into the fourth quarter of their semifinal matchup with Siloam Springs, will match North Pulaski and Lonoke in hunger. Unfortunately, they lose just about everyone to graduation, including the irreplaceable Ty O’Neill and her 24 points and four steals per game.

Brian Martin continues to lay in place the foundation for the resurrection of the Beebe boys’ program, though he will have to reload next season with the loss of 10 seniors, including Zach Kersey, Will Scott, Trey Smith, Anthony Forte and Donte Myles.

Some up-and-comers to keep an eye on next year include the Sylvan Hills boys who, despite the departures of P.J. Ross, Harold Ward and Nick Zimmerman, can look forward to Archie Goodwin, the sophomore-to-be, who poured in a team-high 16 points in the Bears’ narrow loss to eventual state champion Greene County Tech in the first round at state. He’ll be one to watch.

The Lady Bears, who rose from the ashes of back-to-back winless seasons in conference play to win 12 games in the 5A-Southeast, must overcome the loss of Latrina Brandon. But some good ones return, including Ashley Evans, Dede Lewis and Ashley Johnson.

Both the Cabot girls and Cabot boys will be depleted by graduation. The boys, who reached the state semis for the second year in a row, lose all five starters, including Arkansas State-bound Adam Sterrenberg. The junior varsity went undefeated, which bodes well. But there will be some growing pains for coach Jerry Bridges next year.

The nucleus of the Lady Panther squad will depart, including Shelby Ashcraft, who will don a UALR uniform next year. Also gone is Jenna Bailey, Stephanie Glover and key reserve Amalie Benjamin.

Up north in White County, Riverview will count on the development of young prospects Taylor Smith and Donald Teague. The young and talented Searcy Lady Lions return just about everybody from their state tournament team.

Over at Harding Academy, boys coach Brad Francis must cope with the loss of heady senior point guard Zack Kirby, but super sophs Daniel Stevens and Seth Keese should provide a solid nucleus. Francis must find more scorers and more depth, two things he lacked this year, though he still was able to get them into the state tournament.

Rusty Garner loses a couple of good ones in point guard Taylor Mote and solid rebounder Ciarra Farmer, but everyone else is back, including the sensational Anna Bangs, as well as Ariel English, McKenzie Miller and Molly Koch.

So there it is, a look ahead as well as a look back at a most remarkable season for our schools. Sixteen state tournament teams, three state finalists, one state champion.

All in all, nothing to sneeze at.